Online program trains students to spot emotionally struggling peers

The pressures and lifestyle risks experienced on a college campus are on constant display, but seeing below the surface of daily life to detect a potentially troubled student is not easy.

A program now offered at Northern Arizona University uses technology intended to develop “gatekeepers” across campus who can recognize students who may be in psychological distress and then intervene.

The At-Risk for University Students program features an online role-playing simulation to train students, faculty and staff how to identify those who may need counseling support. Access to the online training, which uses emotionally responsive avatars, is open to everyone on campus and takes 30-40 minutes to complete.

“This program is exciting because it uses cutting-edge technology,” said Melissa Griffin, senior health educator in the Health Promotions office. “It’s an efficient, easy, best-practice program.”

Griffin said the peer-to-peer approach is important, considering the number of students who may need additional services.

“We want to get the word out by targeting students for training who interact with a lot of other students,” Griffin said, noting that resident advisors in the residence halls are a logical choice. Griffin also is reaching out to student organizations.

The program is paid for by a grant from the Arizona Department of Health Services, which made it available to universities and community colleges throughout the state.