Virtual Avatar Coaches: Improving Mental Health Treatment for College Students with Accessible Peer Support (2018-2019)

Every year, approximately 25% of American adults are living with a diagnosable mental illness. College students are a particularly high-risk group; 75% of adult-onset mental illnesses are present by age 25. Students face a multitude of stressors during college, and these stressors can serve to exacerbate underlying predispositions to mental illness. There are significant barriers to the delivery and effectiveness of mental health services for college students. Barriers to seeking services include feelings of personal shame, feelings of ambiguity about the need for treatment and skepticism about treatment effectiveness. The traditional manner of delivery of mental health services may present another obstacle. People often need coaching and support in the precise moment that something challenging is unfolding. However, there are also significant barriers to implementation of in-the-moment services including cost, therapist availability, ethical or legal issues and potential for therapist burnout. The use of trained teams of virtual peer health coaches (“avatars”) has the potential to address these barriers.

This Bass Connections project developed an innovative way to improve the mental health of college students, through the use of peer health coaches who will deliver support via virtual avatars. The project built on an existing application, Sidekicks™, utilizing the technology to connect college students struggling with mental health disorders to peer health coaches. Trained by licensed professionals, the peer coaches will be able to provide one-to-one online help to students who are unwilling or unable to seek professional treatment and to students who could benefit from extra services. Students will be able to download an iPhone-compatible application that will connect them to a peer health coach. The coach, acting through a virtual avatar to remain anonymous, can provide real-time, moment-to-moment support via the phone app.

The 2018-2019 team focused on designing a training plan for peer health coaches and creating the app. The team created a new psychology peer health course designed to train an elite group of peer health couches. The course will be offered starting in Fall 2019. The team also designed a system of data collection to track the mental health of peer health coaches and individuals seeking help. Additionally, the team developed a database to provide peer health coaches with in the moment resources for helping students. The team will continue pilot testing the app in Fall 2019, with plans for a full launch in Fall 2020.


Summer 2018 – Spring 2019

Team Outputs 

Peer Avatars for Mental Health: A Peer to Peer Support Program (poster by Christina Boghosian, Kyra Citron, Brooke Keene, Bruny Kenou, Urmi Pandya, Ameya Sanyal, Taylor Shabani, Lindsey Trematerra, Esther Wang, Lulu Wein, Shan Zhong, Jonathan Cloughesy, Savannah Erwin, David Goldston, Guillermo Sapiro, Timothy Strauman, Sue Wasiolek, Nancy Zucker, presented at EHDx, Duke University, April 9, 2019, and at Bass Connections Showcase, Duke University, April 17, 2019; runner up, Bass Connections Poster Competition, Audience Award)

Virtual Avatar Coaches (talk by Bruny Kenou, EHDx, Duke University, April 9, 2019, winner, Best Talk)

This Team in the News

The Power of Bass Connections Teamwork

Meet the Members of the 2018-19 Student Advisory Council

Student using computer

Team Leaders

/graduate Team Members

  • Savannah Erwin, Psychology-PHD

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Christina Boghosian, Public Policy Studies (AB)
  • Molly Chen, Computer Science (AB)
  • Kyra Citron
  • Maram Elnagheeb, Sociology (AB)
  • Brooke Keene, Electrical & Computer Egr(BSE), Computer Science (BS2)
  • Bruny Kenou, Neuroscience (BS)
  • Urmi Pandya
  • Ameya Sanyal
  • Lindsey Trematerra, Psychology (AB), Political Science (AB2)
  • Weiwei Wang
  • Megan Wong, Biomedical Engineering (BSE)
  • Shan Zhong, Mathematics (BS), Economics (BS2)

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Franca Alphin, School of Medicine-Community and Family Medicine
  • Jonathan Bae, Duke Health Patient Safety and Clinical Quality
  • Richard Chung, School of Medicine-Pediatrics: Primary Care Pediatrics
  • Martha Foukal, School of Medicine-Psychiatry: Behavioral Medicine
  • Guillermo Sapiro, Pratt School of Engineering-Electrical & Computer Engineering*
  • Nancy Zucker, School of Medicine-Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences*

/zcommunity Team Members

  • Ron Suskind, Sidekicks