As a part of my series about “Mental Health Champions” helping to normalize the focus on mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Dr. Glenn Albright.Dr. Glenn Albright’s passion for learning and its application in the fields of health and behavioral health fuel his research activities at Kognito. Dr. Albright leads a team of researchers at Kognito in evaluating the efficacy of its immersive learning and assessment role-play simulations to bring about sustained behavior changes in the areas of social, emotional, and physical health. His research involves integrating empirically-based findings drawn from neuroscience such as emotional regulation, mentalizing, and empathy, as well as components of social cognitive learning models including motivational interviewing and adult learning theory. He is a clinical psychologist who received his Ph.D. from The City University of New York in the area of experimental cognition with concentrations in neuropsychology and applied psychophysiology. Dr. Albright is the former Chair of the Department of Psychology at Baruch College of the City University of New York and has received distinguished teaching awards at both Baruch and New York University. He is actively involved in publishing and presents at numerous conferences addressing how game-based role-play simulations can cost-effectively support public health initiatives. These initiatives are focused on bringing about positive changes in behavior and are designed to impact large numbers of geographically dispersed people comprised of vulnerable populations.
Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?
My initial interest in psychology was as an undergraduate student when I was struggling mightily with relationships. I came from a family that didn’t talk about relationships or emotions, thus it put me at a disadvantage when I left home for college. Finally, it got to the point where I decided that I should take advantage of help so that I could figure things out. Through a lot of hard work in therapy, I began to understand my emotions and how to express them in ways that were helpful to me and relationships, both personal and business. That’s when the lightbulb went off. I realized that being a therapist was the best way for me to have a positive impact on the lives of others.
I went from a pre-med major to receiving a Ph.D. in psychology. This allowed me to secure a professorship at Baruch College of the City University of New York where as both a teacher and researcher, I have been able to have an impact on many students and to carry out my self-imposed mission of working with vulnerable and displaced populations. Today I have the pleasure of teaching the large Introduction to Psychology classes with anywhere from 250 to 500 students, mostly first-year students with many coming from families like mine. My mission in teaching over 80,000 students over the years is to turn them on to the scientific study of people and apply it to their lives.
In terms of research, the same joy I find in teaching applies to my work with Kognito online simulationsthat are helping many thousands of teachers, students, and healthcare professionals become effective communicators to support health and wellness. The research team that I direct has demonstrated how our role-play simulations with virtual humans can have a tremendous impact. It is incredibly exciting that the changes in skills and behavior that we measureas a result of our role-play simulations can extend into significantly impacting global public health initiatives.
According to Mental Health America’s report,over 44 million Americans have a mental health condition. Yet there’s still a stigma about mental illness. Can you share a few reasons you think this is so?
Holding negative beliefs about people who are experiencing mental health problems, or are in therapy, is unfortunately pervasive, harmful, and shared by a wide range of people in all strata, even those who have family members who are struggling. In every profession, across family members and colleagues, mental health stigma prevents people from seeking help. There’s a need for more education on mental health topics, especially to prepare individuals who are in an optimal position to help people who might be struggling, like teachers, doctors, nurses, and parents.
While stigma is still pervasive, our research at Kognito has shown that people believe that stepping in to support someone in distress is an extension of their role. For example, a staggering 87% of over 65,000 college faculty, staff, and students saythat it is part of their role to connect students experiencing psychological distress with mental health support services.
Additionally, stigma is perpetuated by how the media portrays mental illness, social groups, and even some politicians who ultimately influence the funding of initiatives to address stigma and mental health care.
Was there a story behind why you decided to launch this initiative?
About 20 years ago I developed a course called “The Psychology of the Internet” that examined how we can use technology as a pedagogical tool and prepare students for the workforce. I’ve always been interested in technology and its application to support students. This led me to Ron Goldman, who had a similar interest, and together we started Kognito.
The use of role-play simulations as applied to mental health initiatives took off as a result of the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech where 32 people were killed and 17 wounded. With that event, there was a growing understanding of the need for educators to more effectively identify, talk to, and if necessary, refer students in psychological distress to support services. The need was to do so in a way that could be scalable, efficient, and evidence-based.
As a result, Kognito developed its first At-Riskrole-play simulation for faculty and staff. This met a critical need for college campuses to address student mental health and suicide prevention, through training faculty and eventually students who could recognize warning signs. Now over ten years later, we’ve trained over 350 campuses and thousands of individuals, including students themselves. The company has grown and developed simulations not just for higher education but also for building communication skills around topics like substance use, chronic disease, and professional communication in K-12, healthcare, and consumer education.
In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?
Individuals: become knowledgeable vis a vis psychoeducation, learn about mental illness and its prevalence, observe it in their surroundings, and understand that treatment does work. Recognizing one’s role as a gatekeeper and navigating conversations that can motivate others to get help is valuable. Also, address the negative impact of stigma. That is actually a courageous act to seek help.
Society: provide this education in schools, community organizations, religious institutions, the healthcare system, and corporations. The cost of mental illness and stigma is overwhelming, and if corporations become more involved in mental health and wellness initiations and address stigma, their ROI would include increased job satisfaction, productivity, and overall corporate culture.
Government: support awareness campaigns to combat stigma in mental health and related areas like domestic violence and substance use. The government should support initiatives that address how the mass media and social media are perpetuating stigma, by the way mental illness is addressed. Also, the government needs to support the mental health initiatives that address the needs of the most vulnerable in our society, giving them the tools to help them move out of poverty, incarceration, and substance use. It is the responsibility of those who have the means to provide these groups with the necessary tools to address overwhelming odds.
What are your 6 strategies you use to promote your own wellbeing and mental wellness? Can you please give a story or example for each?
- I am the volunteer director of an equine therapy program for veterans called 13 Hands Equine Rescue. Here, horses from abuse, neglect, and near slaughter are rehabilitated, adopted in some cases, and used in equine therapy for treating veterans with PTSD and their families. That work is incredibly rewarding.
- Besides my time volunteering, I like the act of taking care of the horses — feeding them, grooming, and mucking. It allows me to revisit a time when life was simple and get in touch with that moment. It is a type of mindfulness.
- I find teaching incredibly engaging and rewarding. I’ve taught intro psych classes since 1981. In every class I learn something new about the field because of the interactions with students and the questions they ask. The love of teaching keeps one young.
- Physical exercise — I do 30 minutes of aerobics (usually the Stairmaster) at Planet Fitness and 30 minutes of strength training 2–3 times a week. Sometimes it’s difficult to energize myself to go to the gym, but it always feels good afterward, not to mention the health benefits.
- I play Candy Crush or Solitaire — it’s a type of meditation almost. It allows my mind to wander, think about things, and solve problems. I never spend money to buy bonus options, I just play the game in a relaxed, enjoyable fashion. Going to hit level 4,000 in Candy Crush this year.
- I would be remiss if I did not say that I enjoy a couple of glasses of wine with good friends. Thank you to all these good friends who have enrichened my life over the years.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?
There’s a textbook I teach to: The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk. This book provides a fantastic understanding of what trauma is, how our bodies hold onto it, and how to treat it. Everybody has experienced some form of trauma in their lives. This book has personally helped me be able to more effectively understand and treat people who have experienced a traumatic event(s). I also teach future clinicians about trauma and how to work with people who have experienced trauma. This inspirational text captures exactly what they need to know, in easy-to-understand language, with excellent examples to better understand trauma in their own lives as well as in their clients’ lives. Even non-clinicians have been inspired by this text for it provides an exceptional exposé of trauma, its impact, and how it’s treated — an exciting read.