Innovation in Gatekeeper Training
By KRISTIN BLANK
Avatar—the word is all over the media. But can technology help people learn how to identify someone in distress?
That's the strategy Joy Himmel, Psy.D., Director of Health and Wellness at Penn State Altoona, is employing to train campus gatekeepers—faculty, staff, and students—to recognize when someone needs help.
In 2008, Penn State Altoona received a Campus Suicide Prevention Grant from SAMHSA and is using the funds to set up innovative Web-based gatekeeper trainings for faculty and staff. Next on the list is reaching the 4,100 students who call the university home.
Dr. Himmel plans to use a gaming program to reach them. Much like in the online world of Second Life and on video game consoles like the Nintendo Wii, students will use an avatar. But they won't be playing a game—they'll be learning to communicate with at-risk students.
"Many gatekeeper training products are designed in a workshop format," said Dr. Himmel, noting that these trainings can take anywhere from 1 to 6 hours to complete. "To reach a wider audience, I realized that Web-based venues were the way to go."
Using a product developed by Penn State University Park, she adapted a faculty and staff gatekeeper training for the Altoona campus. The product went live in fall 2009.
"Worrisome Student Behaviors: Minimizing Risk," features three vignettes that focus on school violence, trouble between classmates, and a student's erratic behavior, as well as commentary from Penn State counselors. Faculty and staff can visit the Web site whenever it's convenient for them—24 hours per day. The program takes under an hour to complete.
Also included are links to campus-based resources as well as information on how to refer a student to the Health and Wellness Center. More than 100 people have taken the training since October 2009. "We've seen great success in terms of university involvement," Dr. Himmel said.
Currently in development and set for launch in May 2010 is a pilot program that allows students to enter a virtual environment of peers via the technology of avatars.
Two students out of five in the virtual space are identified as having difficulties in academic progress, attitudes, or behavior. Users can "talk" to these students and learn skills in identifying students at risk, approaching them, and referring them to resources. "It's very interactive," said Dr. Himmel. "If you ask one question, the student will give a certain answer, and then you have to decide how to respond."
If users choose an answer that may not be the best thing to say in a given situation, she said, the program will give cues for better options.
Students especially are familiar with these types of online environments, Dr. Himmel said. "And critical information is brought directly to them, eliminating the need to carve out several hours for in-person training," she said. "I think this kind of technology is where we need to be."
Visit the Penn State Altoona Health and Wellness Center.
Read about how SAMHSA's National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is also using avatars in the effort to save lives and spread hope.
Photos courtesy of Penn State Altoona, Office of University Relations