UK Social Work launches Oculus VR support group for teens in foster care

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Nov. 7, 2022) — Building on the success of Adoption Support for Kentucky (ASK), the University of Kentucky’s College of Social Work (CoSW) is expanding its virtual reality (VR) program to support teens in foster care.

ASK is an innovative approach to providing support to family, adoptive and kin carers across the Commonwealth. The award-winning program leverages technology to deliver engaging training and inclusive support groups.

Peer support is a powerful connecting tool – bringing people together based on shared experiences.

Traditionally, these groups meet in person. But virtual support is becoming more accessible through technology, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. This framework gives participants who are homebound, suffer from social anxiety, live in rural areas, have busy schedules, or prefer anonymity the opportunity to connect with mentors and peers.

The CoSW program includes two ASK Teens VR support groups for teens ages 14-17 who are currently in foster care. Sessions will be co-facilitated by licensed clinicians and former foster youth. A group is designed specifically to support LGBTQ+ teens.

Ultimately, facilitators will use virtual reality to create a safe and caring environment for teens to share with each other and receive support from their peers.

“Being a teenager can be a tough time and finding a support system is critical to your mental and emotional well-being,” said Lauren Lynch, ASK program coordinator. “Technology is a big part of their lives too, so integrating it in a way that makes teens feel safe, connected, and seen the way they really want is the driving force behind the pilot. I’m excited to be part of this initiative.

Why virtual reality?

UK CoSW Dean Jay Miller stumbled upon the concept of using Oculus VR to facilitate social work services by chance – after installing a headset for his son.

“I’ve never been into game concepts, in general,” Miller said. “But after putting on a headset and committing to the experience, I really started to see the potential to approach service deployment in a fundamentally different way. Ultimately, it reframes what it means “Game”.

The first pilot of the CoSW Oculus VR program successfully kicked off with an ASK support group for adoptive and adoptive fathers earlier this year.

This latest expansion aims to meet teenagers where they are – a generation accustomed to interacting online with the latest technology. Using avatars also gives participants the ability to choose how they look and how they interact with the world.

Additionally, the initiative is a collaboration between the university’s esports program and the Office of Technology Commercialization (OTC).

“UK esports is very excited about the collaboration and success of the ASK VIP initiative. Games and gaming technology offer new ways to inspire, educate and innovate,” said Erik Jarvis, Head of operations for the UKFCU Esports Lounge.” This CoSW approach poses a 21st century foundation for teaching, learning and engagement. The possibilities for iterating on this approach in the future cannot be overstated.

“We are delighted to partner with and support the CoSW and its innovations to improve support services for children and families in the Commonwealth and beyond,” added Serenity Wright, Associate Director of Social Innovation. “This is precisely the type of programming that OTC’s social innovation team is honored to elevate.”

This latest pilot is just the beginning. Miller plans to continue to expand resources and opportunities through an eService initiative.

The initiative is designed to prepare future social, mental and behavioral health professionals to engage and deploy innovative services through technology solutions.

“The future of service is technology,” Miller said. “If we are to deliver on the promise of delivering effectiveness, efficiency and accessibility to those who need services, we need to ensure our workforce is ready to use, evaluate and improve this technology. . That’s what our eService initiative is for. We have been extremely fortunate to engage with great partners in completing this work.”

The CoSW will provide all the necessary equipment for teens to participate in the six-session program, and participants are also eligible to receive a financial incentive after completing the series and providing feedback.

Interested and eligible participants can register by visiting the CoSW website. For more information, email ukcosw@uky.edu.

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