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Game developed to help school counselors assess suicide risk

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — For school counselors, the first time helping a suicidal student can be an emotional trial by fire. To better prepare counselors for this type of charged situation, a Purdue University professor has developed a computer simulation for virtual training.

screenshots of suicide risk assessment simulation

These screen captures show parts of the Suicide Risk-Assessment Game, which is designed to help train students who might one day work with young people in need of counseling. The virtual training tool was developed by Carrie Wachter Morris, a Purdue assistant professor of counseling and development. (Images provided by Carrie Wachter Morris)

Carrie Wachter Morris is an assistant professor of counseling and development in Purdue’s Department of Educational Studies and a former counselor at facilities throughout North Carolina. She developed the Suicide Risk-Assessment Game, or SRAG, with the aid of a digital-content development grant from Information Technology at Purdue (ITaP), Purdue’s central information technology organization.

Of 34 grant applications submitted in 2008, Wachter Morris’ was one of 10 accepted, earning $15,000 and the use of ITaP resources toward developing the training tool.

SRAG’s concept and content is hers, but a team of student developers led by Terry Patterson, an educational technologist with ITaP’s emerging technologies group, oversaw the graphic design and programming.

“It wasn’t only the social impact on a very serious issue that appealed to the grant committee about the idea,” Patterson said. “This was a great opportunity for students to create a framework for a serious game that could be reused for other experience simulations.”

Wachter Morris intends SRAG to be “an emotional equalizer” that benefits school-counseling students at Purdue and also addresses the gap between counselor training and professional expectations.

“The more we’re worried about ourselves, the more we focus on us and not the clients,” she said.

Statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that in 2007 14.5 percent of high school students seriously considered suicide in the previous 12 months, while 6.9 percent reported making at least one suicide attempt. A 2002 Brigham Young University survey of school counselors found 35 percent of respondents received no graduate-education training in crisis intervention, and 57 percent felt either “not at all” or “minimally” prepared for such intervention.

“As a field, we have to generate teaching tools that those without the background can effectively use,” Wachter Morris said. “Studies show that students we’re matriculating have spent more time during school playing video games than reading. Now that these students are entering graduate school, why not develop a tool from which they can learn in a medium with which they’re familiar?”

In gamer parlance, SRAG is a beat-the-clock title: A note has been found from a student planning to commit suicide Friday after school. Players have 40 in-game hours (30- 45 minutes in real time) to assess which one of five students is at imminent risk of suicide and which one is a false risk – meaning there might be danger signs to monitor in the future, but no worry of immediate harmful action.

SRAG’s scoring system requires players to forge a path to assessment rather than asking students outright if they’re suicidal. Their investigation is complicated by daily tasks generally required of school counselors in the real world, ranging from lunch duty to small-group counseling. Failing to address these tasks will result in a time-consuming penalty.

Should a player not correctly identify the imminently suicidal student before the clock runs out, SRAG offers a “deus ex machina” – or “out of the blue” – element to save the student.

Wachter Morris envisions SRAG one day helping to train resident advisers in college residence halls, other mental-health professionals and, perhaps, middle- and high-school students to recognize risk behaviors.

In December, Wachter Morris introduced SRAG to nine graduate students in her school-counseling seminar – most of whom have had counseling internships and practical experience. Although some suggested efforts to improve SRAG, the students generally appreciated its accuracy and the interface. She will soon run her training program through focus groups at Purdue and in the spring will send it to campuses around the country with school-counselor programs to receive feedback from instructors and students.

“SRAG is that half-step between in-class instruction and a student in front of you where it’s in the moment and you have to think on your feet,” Wachter Morris said.

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One Response to “Game developed to help school counselors assess suicide risk”

  1. DIANE Buttel says:

    How do we get this game to use with counselors and counseling interns?


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