Mixed-reality technology helps train for tough conversations

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Alexa Culbert
  • 434th ARW Public Affairs
Often times, during difficult conversations, one can be at a loss for words. However, when talking to someone who may be having thoughts of suicide, what you say could save their life, but how do you prepare yourself for that moment? The answer may lie in virtual and mixed-reality.

Christy Shives, Airman and Family Readiness Center Violence Prevention Integrator, facilitated the base’s first Suicide Awareness and Prevention training session using a mixed-reality program through the Emotional Intelligence Institute, Sept. 11, 2021.

The EII provides a safe, judgement-free space where participants can engage in a real-time emotional conversation with a live avatar in a digital environment.

[This is] different than any other training that I have experienced,” Stacey Pennington, AFRC program manager. “This added a layer of reality and invoked very real feeling such as, concern, compassion, sympathy and even curiosity. It required active listening and open ended questions to dive deeper in learning more about the avatar, until you arrive at a point where a decision has to be made and you have to have the willingness and confidence to be the one to ask the difficult question, ‘are you thinking about suicide?’ This style of training has the ability to help our Airmen grow and learn and be the best wingmen they can be.”

During the one hour allotted, three individuals from the group are chosen to sit-down and speak with the avatar one-on-one. They are each given a different scenario and have to respond to the situation accordingly. The scenarios are crafted to fit the needs of the organization and can range from engaging in a counseling session to addressing the warning signs of suicide.

Afterwards, the group discusses together on how they thought the conversation went.

“My first concern was being in front of all these people, but when you’re talking to the avatar you zone everyone else out and it did feel like I was sitting in my office and talking to an Airman,” said Senior Master Sgt. Jarred Gentile, 434th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron First Sergeant.

Shives said the mixed-reality experience will not replace the annual Suicide Awareness and Prevention training, and will always be considered as supplemental, but could encourage and better equip Airmen to have those emotionally difficult conversations.

“I think we need to be out front and center. I believe the Air Force already has a fairly robust Suicide Awareness and Prevention program, but here we are again, out in front, trying to improve and reach as many people as we can,” said Shives. “My hope is that we build on communication, feedback and reading facial expressions… because these are the kinds of skills that everyone can use to help their fellow wingman.”

The 434th ARW is the largest KC-135R Stratotanker unit in the Air Force Reserve Command. The Citizen Airmen from the Hoosier Wing routinely deploy around the world in support of the Air Force mission.

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