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WVU researchers using virtual reality gaming to address behavioral health care workforce shortage

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Virtual reality games are a good form of entertainment and relaxation, but for this team of West Virginia University School of Social Work researchers, virtual reality gamification is being used as a launchpad to careers in behavioral health.

Social Work educators Megan Gandy and Jacki Englehardt, alongside students Rachael Pellegrino and Abbi Davis, embarked on Play Higher to address the shortage in the behavioral health workforce in West Virginia. The project applies gamification to build career interests and readiness, using virtual reality and simulation. It introduces players to a “day in the life” of a behavioral health worker.

The Play Higher project, founded and directed by Gandy, has received support from the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission, which also encourages undergraduate students to transition to graduate school for behavioral health careers.

“The call for proposals was about career pipelines in behavioral health and it targeted middle and high school students,” said Gandy, associate professor. “In other career pipelines like in STEM, they will typically use something like a fun experiment or something about nature that get kids excited about science or STEM careers. How do we do that with being a therapist?  I decided to make the method of delivery the fun part and make it gamified. "That was where the idea emanated from of creating a virtual reality game experience that introduces kids to the behavioral health part of social work.”

The United States currently faces a shortage of mental health professionals – an issue that bleeds into West Virginia as accessibility to those services in rural areas are already lacking. Adding workers to the behavioral health and social work fields would be of immense value to the state.

Carolyn Canini, director of behavioral health programs, West Virginia Higher Education Policy, said the staff of the Health Sciences Division welcomed Gandy’s innovative idea to boost the number of students pursuing behavioral health education in West Virginia.

“Our state is experiencing a shortage of behavioral health professionals and it impacts the wellbeing of children, adults and families,” Canini said. “It is critical to the health of West Virginians that we introduce middle and high school students to potential careers in counseling, social work, psychology and behavioral medicine. Play Higher does this in a fun and educational way, letting students experience some of the daily tasks of a social worker, all within a highly interactive virtual environment.”

The project had an advisory board of professionals that guided content and storylines for the game, so as to engage ethically with the kids and to avoid triggers. The board included behavioral health professionals, teachers and youth development experts. The game was also vetted by an advisory board of youth.

Becca Fint-Clark, Extension agent of 4-H Youth Development, said WVU Extension partnered with Gandy and her team to supply career readiness activities while rolling out Play Higher virtual reality experience among middle and high school students. WVU Extension initially reached out to young people throughout Monongalia County with hands-on educational experiences. This move helped provide the project with students and contacts to fine-tune the program before offering it on a larger scale.

In creating the storylines for the game, the project partnered with Heather Cole, teaching assistant professor at WVU Reed College of Media and head of Mon River Games, a local non-profit. Also, as partners, Roundtable Learning’s designers engaged in understanding the best design to use in creating the right experience for learners. With the project currently focused on younger students, Gandy said the next phase of the project will target older and non-traditional students.



CONTACT: Jake Stump
WVU Research Communications