Avatars aid mental health assessment

homelessFlinders nursing and paramedic graduates will soon be better prepared for the often difficult task of assessing a mental health patient’s state – thanks to virtual reality.

Professor Eimear Muir-Cochrane from Flinders School of Nursing & Midwifery and her team have received almost $92,000 from the Australian Government to develop a mental state assessment tool in the online virtual world, Second Life.

It will enable undergraduates in nursing, paramedics and health promotion to develop skills through role-playing a health professional or mental health patient as a Second Life avatar created by Professor Muir-Cochrane’s team.

“We are taking the traditional classroom training method of learning to deal with people who might be very anxious, acutely psychotic or even suicidal and transposing that into Second Life,” Professor Muir-Cochrane said.

“Ironically, in this virtual world we’re better able to recreate the conditions that nurses, paramedics and community workers might encounter when dealing with a mental health patient in the real world,” she said.

“For example, using an avatar, a student playing the role of patient can experience visual and auditory hallucinations that the other avatars can’t see or hear.

“So the ‘patient’ learns what it is like to concentrate when there is a voice in your head that’s not your own saying something unpleasant. And the other students begin to understand why they’re having difficulty communicating with the ‘patient’. As well as improving knowledge and skills, it helps to break down the stigma that students may attach to mental health.”

Second Life also gives lecturers greater flexibility in the range of physical environments in which students can learn.

“We will have a scenario set in a living room in which an ambulance officer, community mental health nurse and a parent are dealing with a distressed and potentially aggressive young man,” Professor Muir-Cochrane said.

“The students will learn safety protocols by having to identify where the patient is located, if there’s an exit, whether they are locked in, for example.”

Another scenario will give students a better understanding of each other’s roles by dealing with patients from the initial point of assessment through to their arrival at an emergency department and referral to a social worker.

The tool is currently under development and will be trialled by a group of Flinders student volunteers in the Riverland in coming months.

“Another advantage of using Second Life is that the topic can be scheduled out of regular hours and can involve students in remote and rural locations,” Professor Muir-Cochrane said.

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