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Computers emulate interviewers

Counselors in many schools around the area have a new tool to help them screen students for depression, anxiety, hyperactivity and other mental disorders -- a computer program.

Counselors in many schools around the area have a new tool to help them screen students for depression, anxiety, hyperactivity and other mental disorders -- a computer program.

The program, used in 26 schools in Fargo-Moorhead and surrounding areas, mimics the interviewing approach of psychiatrists in identifying signs of mental illnesses.

The participating schools are in the Prairie Evaluation Project, a pilot test of software developed at Columbia University and coordinated by Prairie at St. John's, a Fargo psychiatric hospital.

"It's essentially an artificial intelligence system," said Dr. Stephen Setterberg, a child psychiatrist and medical director of Prairie at St. John's. "It's meant to emulate an expert interviewer."

So far, 350 students in 13 school districts, including junior high schools in both Fargo and Moorhead, have used the program. A voice heard by headphones asks questions and students type their responses.

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"We have found that kids who use the computer have been very honest and very open," said Janel Simonson, school counselor at Moorhead Junior High. "They don't have to interact with us personally," and some students find that more comfortable.

Patricia Bathie, school counselor at Agassiz Junior High in Fargo, said the reports generated by the computer program can bolster impressions teachers and counselors have about a troubled student.

"It's been a wonderful help," she said. "It's a lot easier for us to show some validity to our concerns."

School counselors don't diagnose with the software or use it to make referrals to mental health specialists; they use it as an assessment tool to make recommendations to parents.

"We have just been able to get so much help for so many students it's amazing to me," Simonson said.

Setterberg, who once taught at Columbia and has connections with its faculty, was a skeptic at first, but has come to have faith in the program, called DISC, which stands for Diagnostic Interview for Children.

"As a psychiatrist I have tremendous confidence in the validity," he said. "It will help guidance counselors know which kids to worry about the most and which to respond to the fastest."

The Prairie Evaluation Project, which began in November 2001 and concludes at the end of this school year, is the first pilot test of the screening program in the nation, said Lisa Faul, community liaison for Prairie at St. John's.

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Many participating schools, which can use the software free of charge, plan to continue using it. Interest among other schools is spreading, Faul said.

"Some of the smaller schools are doing grade-wide screening," she said. "For most of the schools it's become a routine."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522

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