Student mental health already was a pressing concern before COVID-19 forced an abrupt shift to virtual learning and painful social isolation for students who thrive on peer interactions. Now teachers face a doubly tough task of identifying students — mostly behind screens instead of desks — showing signs of psychological distress. One answer? Avatars. The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) and the Minnesota Department of Education have partnered with health simulation company Kognito to bring free "At Risk" training to schools statewide. Stephanie Downey, Bemidji-based suicide prevention coordinator for MDH, oversees the program and tells us how it works, even during a pandemic.

Q: In a nutshell, what is Kognito?

A: Kognito is an evidence-based program that offers educators virtual training simulations tackling real-life issues youth may experience, such as bullying, difficulties at home, falling grades, self-injurious behaviors or thoughts of suicide. Half a million educators have used it and the data show that its simulations and scenarios work very well. Kognito helps teachers, faculty and other school personnel identify at-risk behaviors so they can refer students to trained support staff who can help them. And, this isn't our first experience with Kognito. The Department of Health, working with NAMI Minnesota, did a pilot project with some schools during the 2017-2018 school year and got positive feedback. Kognito provided training for that pilot.

Q: Teachers already have so much on their plate. Might adding this task overwhelm them?

A: We know that educators are not counselors or psychologists. But they're in a great position to connect with their students and get them to trained support staff who can help them.

Q: Is that why you encourage other school personnel to get trained?

A: Yes. Trusted adults might not be the teacher or school social worker. They could be the bus driver, the school lunch lady a child has known forever, a paraprofessional or that really cool guy who is the hall monitor. By using this system to train multiple types of staff, you're building a larger capacity to reach students.

Q: How can you pick up on worrisome clues with students learning virtually?

A: Teachers and other school staff engaged in distance learning have built relationships with students, which they can rely on to notice when the student does not seem themselves. In general, we suggest looking for signs of change, signs of distress that you would pay attention to in person. Are they "logging on" when they are supposed to be? Turning in assignments on time? Struggling with the technology? It's important to pay attention to what you notice in conversation and body language when virtually engaging with students.

Q: Take us through how it works.

A: Let's say you've got an elementary schoolchild who is prone to worrying and struggling with assignments. The teacher can watch a role play between a "virtual" teacher and worried elementary school student; the teacher is given many opportunities to guide that conversation with a pop-up menu of potential conversation pathways. Along the way, the teacher is receiving online feedback from a coach. He or she is also given regular opportunities to go back and try another conversation pathway that might be more effective.

Q: Why do you think it works?

A: Virtual training takes away some of the intimidation factor. You go through the conversation pathways, receiving motivational conversation techniques. It helps you choose how you would say what you want to say and you can see the outcome of your choices.

Q: But this isn't a replacement for human-to-human interaction, is it?

A: This is not meant to replace human training. This is another tool, another way to receive professional development. We encourage schools and districts to follow up with training participants once they have completed the simulations to have discussion sessions, share school referral protocols and answer any questions they have.

Q: What's the time commitment?

A: Teachers can do a simulation in 45 minutes to an hour. Schools can choose to do additional follow up for a total of about two hours.

Q: How many Minnesota schools are on board?

A: We launched in May and the Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted School District, which had been part of the NAMI pilot, jumped on board. A number of schools participated in informational webinars and have committed to rolling out the simulations. Some schools have chosen to roll out the simulations before school as a part of staff development. Others have chosen to wait until things settle in a little.

Q: How did you find your way to this work?

A: I have a criminal justice degree and chemical dependency training. I worked at a mental health residential inpatient treatment center for adolescents for almost 20 years. When I started in suicide prevention, there weren't regional suicide prevention coordinators. I saw the gap. My mission was to see our state have more coordinated suicide prevention across counties and to build a community of leaders to support overall student wellness. I pinch myself sometimes thinking, "You're doing what you saw a need for."