Virtual Avatar Coaches: Improving Mental Health Treatment for College Students with Accessible Peer Support (2019-2020)


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 services may present another obstacle. Current models of therapy assume that talking to someone in an office will lead to generalization of new skills outside of the office. Yet people often need coaching and support in the precise moment and circumstance that something challenging is unfolding.

Project Description

This Bass Connections project will address the gaps in college student mental healthcare by implementing a new technologically-supported peer health coaching program, in which students who are trained as coaches will deliver support via text messaging.

This project builds off an existing application, Sidekicks™, which helps parents and their child’s treatment team communicate with a child diagnosed with autism. Some features of this app are particularly suitable for college student peer health coaching. For example, coaches and clients choose anonymous avatars; the two individuals communicating can share screens; a student in need can put out a call for coaching, and available coaches can respond to the call. Peer health coaches can set their own schedules and easily log in and out to provide assistance via mobile phone.

The 2018-2019 project team evaluated existing peer coaching programs, adapted them to meet the needs of the Duke community, partnered with Orange County Rape Crisis Center to train peer coaches, augmented existing programs with tools to target eating disorders and designed an assessment strategy to monitor the mental health of both coaches and students in need.

The 2019-2020 project team will implement the peer health coaching curricula as a course within Psychology & Neuroscience. Team members will also examine the mental health of peer coaches through training and program implementation, and assess the effects on mental health of students who participate in pilot implementation with one dormitory.

Anticipated Outputs

Peer health curriculum to train coaches to provide mental health coaching services; website to connect students to peer coaches and other resources; publications; data for external grant application


Fall 2019 – Spring 2020

  • Fall 2019: Implement peer health coach training curricula; prepare avatar coach marketing materials; begin outreach to student organizations; obtain pilot feedback on project
  • Spring 2020: Implement pilot peer coaching program

See earlier related project, Virtual Avatar Coaches: Improving Mental Health Treatment for College Students with Accessible Peer Support (2018-2019).



Image by DariuszSankowski, CC0 Creative Commons

Image by DariuszSankowski.

Team Leaders

  • Savannah Erwin, Trinity - Clinical Psychology-Ph.D. Student
  • Guillermo Sapiro, Pratt School of Engineering-Electrical & Computer Engineering
  • Nancy Zucker, School of Medicine-Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences

/graduate Team Members

  • Savannah Erwin, Psychology-PHD

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Christina Boghosian, Public Policy Studies (AB)
  • Brendan Burg, Psychology (AB)
  • Kyra Citron, Gender Sexuality & Fem St(AB2), Psychology (AB)
  • Jalisa Jackson, Psychology (AB), African/African Am St (AB2)
  • Brooke Keene, Electrical & Computer Egr(BSE), Computer Science (BSE2)
  • Bruny Kenou, Neuroscience (BS)
  • Laura Li
  • Shrey Majmudar
  • Urmi Pandya, Psychology (BS)
  • Elizabeth Roy
  • Ameya Sanyal, Psychology (AB), Global Health (AB2)
  • Taylor Shabani

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • David Goldston, School of Medicine-Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences
  • Timothy Strauman, Arts & Sciences-Psychology and Neuroscience
  • Suzanne Wasiolek, Administrative Offices

/zcommunity Team Members

  • Orange County Rape Crisis Center
  • Project Heal