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Virtual Avatar Coaches: Improving Mental Health of College Students with Accessible Peer Support

A Multidisciplinary Bass Connections Project

We are designing an innovative way to improve the mental health of college students: training students to be peer health coaches who can deliver instantaneous support to fellow students through an anonymous messaging app. Trained by licensed professionals, student peer coaches will be able to provide individualized help to students who are unwilling or unable to seek professional treatment and to students who could benefit from extra services. The coach and user, interacting through virtual avatars to remain anonymous, will be able to connect in real-time via a smartphone app.

Our project team has designed a curriculum to train the peer health coaches in providing mental health coaching services for students who are struggling with or want to improve their mental health. The smartphone app will connect students to peer coaches and other relevant mental health resources. The team will collect data on app usage and peer coach and student user satisfaction that will inform adjustments to improve the program to best meet the needs of students.

Project Timeline:

  • Fall 2019 – train 16 students to be peer coaches; collect baseline data on student mental health

  • Spring 2019 – launch pilot program; collect data on app usage, mental health of users and coaches

  • Summer 2020 – analyze pilot data; refine peer coach curriculum and app

  • Fall 2020 – launch full program


Note: We are not actively recruiting external participants at this time. Duke students interested in participating as peer coaches can enroll in the Fall 2019 course “Peer Health Coaching”


Interested in joining this project as a student researcher? Email Savannah Erwin (

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