Mental health professionals are using computer games, simulations in their counseling of youth


Online platforms will become more integral to professional counselors and their clients.

Almost a year has passed since the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., where 20 school children and six school staff members were killed. It is an unfortunate reality that danger can enter the very classrooms where we send our children to learn and play.

In the wake of such horrific tragedies, we must focus our attention on providing mental health services for children and adolescents. Working with this particular population is not unfamiliar to our professional counseling members. Many of our members specifically work with children and adolescents and realize the benefits therapy can have for their young clients.

With traumatic events such as Sandy Hook affecting our children, it is vital for mental health professionals to cater treatment to youth. Technology is one solution. Today, 78 percent of teens have a cell phone; one out of four teens has a tablet computer; and nine out of ten teens have a computer or have access to one at home, according to The Pew Research Center.

Technology will never fade—it will only evolve. It dominates the lives of the young and continues to become an integral tool in many professions, including professional counseling. Today, professional counselors are exploring how to incorporate modern technology into their work, specifically with young students.

At the 2012 American Counseling Association Annual Conference, there were various sessions exploring the ethical use and best practices for using social media and virtual worlds in counseling. The American Counseling Association’s experts, including those working in the ACA’s Cyber Task Force, predict that online platforms will become more integral to professional counselors and their clients.

(Next page: The role of virtual role-playing and computer games in student counseling)

Virtual role-play and avatar technology

Online simulations allow participants to enter virtual environments and practice challenging conversations with avatars in order to build real-life skills. These platforms allow children to partake in counseling in the comfort of their own homes and use a familiar technology, which allows the counseling process to meet the needs and desires of particular students. Counseling can be unfamiliar and intimidating for children and teens. This tool introduces counseling in a nonthreatening manner, allowing the process to be welcomed.

ACA recognizes the advancement of developers in this area, such as Kognito Interactive, who offers suicide prevention training through an online training simulation for faculty, staff, students, and resident assistants in higher-education settings, as well as for high school educators, middle school educators, and high school students. Through such simulations, participants enter virtual environments and learn various skills, including how to motivate students to seek help and how to make a referral to mental health support services when necessary.

Kognito conducted a study to identify the effectiveness of its program, and it found that the number of students whom educators referred to counseling services after the training increased from 37 percent to 53 percent, while students referred their peers to services 53 percent more often.

Computer games

Mental health professionals also are using computer games to work with youth. Games are interactive and challenge users to battle and overcome negative thoughts. Similar to virtual role-play, games are comfortable platforms that allow for a professional counselor to communicate effectively with children. Using familiar avenues helps the professional counselor avoid overwhelming and scaring students.

Because children can have difficulty maintaining eye contact, especially in uncomfortable situations, game-based interactions between professional counselors and children allow both the professional counselor and the client to focus on the game and engage by working through the game’s goals. In the end, they are able to build a stronger relationship, which aids in the counseling process.

ACA recognizes gNats Island’s innovative efforts to use gaming in adolescent mental health treatment. gNats Island is a computer game where players learn strategies for identifying and challenging negative thoughts through conversations with game characters. Negative thoughts are represented through creatures known as gNats, and players catch, swat, and trap gNats in the game. As of June 2012, more than 750 mental health professionals in Ireland, the U.K., and the U.S. have received training in the gNats Island clinical intervention.

It’s important for professional counselors, parents, and school officials to explore ways technology can be used to help children and adolescents. Parents devote their lives to protecting their children, and it’s a scary reality that attacks such as Sandy Hook have made us realize that our children are not untouched by violence in the world.

Technology’s integration into the field is up to speed with the demands of our society, and by staying current, we can offer the best treatment for our youth and protect our kids to the best of our abilities. Our professional counseling members who are interested in incorporating this kind of technology into their practice benefit from ACA’s Cyber Task Force resources. Parents and school officials interested in accessing professional counselors can use ACA’s Therapy Directory.

Richard Yep, CAE, FASAE, is chief executive officer of the American Counseling Association.