KXAN Austin

How Texas State University is using artificial intelligence to target mental stress

SAN MARCOS, Texas (KXAN) — New research at Texas State University indicates there could be a growing problem called ‘compassion fatigue.’

Professor and psychologist Millie Cordaro says that as professors care for or help others during the pandemic, it can leave them feeling psychologically overwhelmed or emotionally numb.

The university’s counseling center hopes an avatar-based simulation called Kognito can help.

“You take on the role of either a faculty member or a student, depending on the simulation, and you talk to a student that is programmed with emotions and memory and personality, and will react like a real student in psychological distress,” explains Glenn Albright, Kognito’s co-founder & research director.

The program uses artificial intelligence and a virtual coach to walk trainees through conversation tactics.

“This program is a form of prevention, which aims to teach skills and interventions, prevent or address mental health concerns early before they develop into mental health crises,” says Richard Martinez, a psychologist with the university’s counseling center.

He says more than 4,000 students have gone through Kognito since 2013.

Albright says the program’s new version now tackles a new stressor: The coronavirus pandemic.

“You’re addressing how students can identify a fellow student in social media who is in distress and then as a result of the pandemic you have the self-care, self-empowerment strategies,” Albright says.

Martinez says during pandemic isolation, many students aren’t coming straight to their center but are reaching out to their peers or professors.

“We’re not going to always be the first office that they reach out to,” he says.

That’s why they’re encouraging more staff to utilize Kognito, too.

“We’re not only trying to take care of ourselves, keep ourselves safe and having our own reactions to the pandemic, we’re also trying to take care and support our students going through that, as well,” Martinez says.

Any person affiliated with Texas State University can access the Kognito mental health training program by logging in here.

Sul Ross State University, Texas A&M and UT Southwestern Medical Center also use the program.