ROUND ROCK (KXAN) — The Round Rock Independent School District is now getting a helping hand from virtual humans in an effort to save lives.

The district started using an online simulator developed by the health simulation company Kognito, so its staff members can better help students who may be dealing with suicidal thoughts.

In 2015, the Texas Legislature passed House Bill 2186 requiring the schools to provide suicide prevention training to all of their new hires, said LaShada Lewis, Counseling Services Coordinator for RRISD. 

Lewis explained, that means all new teachers, counselors, bus drivers and custodians starting at RRISD undergo the Kognito training. 

With Kognito, the staff can interact with “emotionally reactive, virtual humans” to practice communicating with “students who might be at-risk for behavior that could harm themselves or others,” according to the developers. 

As the trainees go through different scenarios, they practice talking with students. They can choose their responses to what the virtual student is saying and get feed back if it’s not the most effective reply. 

The training can be completed on the trainees’ own time and at own pace. Lewis said, “It allows them that privacy to make those mistakes and to learn from what they responded with. It also gives them the opportunity to go and do it multiple times.”

Lewis said suicide is one of the top leading causes of deaths among kids and young people between the ages of 10 and 24. 

“We also know that there’s about five to seven year gap between the first onset of a child having some mental health needs to when they actually receive help,” she said. “So the sooner we can get students help they need, the better in the long run.”

Jennifer Spiegler, Senior Vice President for Strategic Partnerships at Kognito, said, in Central Texas, Leander and Round Rock use the online simulator. Statewide, about 40 districts utilize Kognito. 

She said, the average cost per person per district to use the program is $15. 

The Texas Education Code requires each district to have a plan that’s updated every year that includes suicide prevention programs.

“It has made a difference, but not enough of a difference,” said Merily Keller, Founder of Texas Suicide Prevention Council.

Keller’s son died by suicide in 2000. She said, “We want every school district to make sure that they’re using the best practice program in suicide prevention, and then we want them to follow it up with policies and procedures, so there’s no wrong door to help.”

Alissa Sughrue, Policy Coordinator at NAMI Texas, said, “There’s not always a one size fits all solution.”

She told KXAN House Bill 3411 in the current legislative session calls for requiring school districts to have a plan to address suicide prevention, intervention and postvention. 

Keller said, “The importance is not whether it’s virtual or whether it’s in person, the importance is that it be done every year.”

If you or anyone you know is having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or go here for a list of resources.