It can be difficult to know what to say when a friend is struggling. The conversation is hard to even start. Maya Cohen, a first-year student at Tulane University, says she knows better how to intervene after playing a video game created to help people learn how to recognize signs of psychological distress like depression, anxiety and substance abuse, and get them professional help.
Like all incoming students at Tulane, Cohen had to participate in an online conversation simulation game titled "At-Risk For College Students." The purpose is to teach empathetic conversation skills. In the game, you play Jesse, a friend of Travis, a depressed young man who's been failing his classes. Jesse notices that Travis hasn't been the same lately, and goes to his apartment to see how he's doing.
Checking in is the kind of supportive effort that friends ideally do for one another, and the game is supposed to encourage more of that. We hear out each other's burdens. Friends are the first bulwark of support when times are a little rough or when something's deeply wrong. We might pride ourselves on the advice we give, the shoulders we offer, the general "being there" for our friends.
But our skill at doing that varies, says Glenn Albright, a psychologist at Baruch College at the City University of New York and cofounder of Kognito, the company that developed the game. "It's the sad reality that a lot of people don't know how to help people," he says. "How to identify those who are struggling, to approach them, talk to them and give them a level of comfort."
Albright thought that the right conversational training program could help people help those around them. "You're talking about 40 percent of college students reporting systems of depression where they say it's interfering with their functioning," Albright says. Kognito's first simulation, released in 2009, focused on faculty-student conversations. The company has since developed over a dozen simulations.