Healing Through Innovation: The Story Behind Genius Academy

K. Rocco Shields
April 30, 2024
One year ago today, on April 30th, 2023, at 7:07 PM, we said a bittersweet goodbye to my father, who was only 69 years old.

It was a moment that left an indelible mark on my soul, etched in the depths of my being. And what's even more heart-wrenching is that his departure from this world could have been prevented with proper mental health care.

A week after losing him, I found myself retreating to the solace of my office—an almost instinctual reaction for an entrepreneur. I buried myself in my work, seeking refuge from the searing pain that had gripped my heart. The guilt and regret were relentless; I couldn't shake the feeling that I could have, should have done more to help him in his struggle.

In the midst of this turmoil and personal anguish, I closed my eyes and embarked on a journey of reflection— and remembered what had led me to create Genius Academy in the first place….

It was 2019...

My father first hit his breaking point as he began to unravel - his battle with addiction had finally taken a relentless toll after years of being in the “system”.

The struggle was agonizing, and we watched helplessly as he spiraled into the abyss. The pain of witnessing his suffering was excruciating, and it tore at the very fabric of our family.

Up to that point, he'd done the rehab circuit in LA, always coming out saying he was "done with using for good" - but each "clean" stint got shorter. Then 2019 hit, my mother left him after years of thinking he would 'get better'....and something just broke: rehab was off the table. 

So many days, we’d worry if he was even alive - and so many times, we’d find him on the verge of death, even resorting to “51/50-ing” him (a term used in California for an involuntary psychiatric hold) a heart wrenching decision we had to make more than once just to make sure he’d live another day.

But it was also a stark reflection of the brokenness of our system, where families often bear the burden of navigating a complex and fragmented healthcare landscape.

Each time after a week, he’d get out of the 51/50 hold at the hospital and they’d put him in a taxi. No followup - just another person in the system going through the process. And he’d go home and start to use again. Rinse. Repeat.

At that time - the weight of my father's addiction bore down on me, threatening to pull me into its abyss. It was a darkness I had never known, and it pushed me into the deepest depression I had experienced in my 40 years on this planet. The despair was suffocating, and I grappled with the overwhelming guilt of not being able to save him, of not being able to stop him from slowly killing himself.

However, amid this darkness, I found a remarkable therapist who began to mend my broken spirit. I realized that even though I couldn't save my father, perhaps I could make a difference for others. After a decade of working in online education, harnessing the power of immersion, I had primarily served top-tier universities. 

But what about the 99% of aspiring mental health professionals who couldn't access such privilege? Like the ones that worked at the hospital that simply thought the answer was putting my father in a taxi and sending him back home?

This realization struck like a thunderbolt. I saw a gaping void—a void at the heart of the systemic mental health crisis. Mental health was not black and white, yet it was being taught that way. Imagine if pilots took to the sky without flight simulators, or if medical doctors practiced surgery on real patients. This was the harsh reality of mental health students, practicing on real people, often in public hospitals where patients needed more experienced help.

I knew this needed to change. It was then that I decided to create an accessible engine for all, with a core focus on breathing vitality into the realm of mental health education.

We began Genius Academy by creating media-based simulations, incorporating live simulations, and bringing the concept of a scalable ‘standardized patient’ to all students. We evolved into an experiential learning company, impacting 3000 learners and even becoming an accredited resource for upskilling current practitioners. The accreditation bodies recognized that not only students but all practitioners needed access to our transformative content to better be able to diagnose patients.

Back to now, 2023.

After my father's passing, I found myself in that familiar place - grieving the outcome I had so long tried to prevent - verging on the brink of yet another personal depression. But this time, armed with the tools from my own self-work, I sought inspiration…

As I sat, alone in my office, staring at my computer, I questioned our impact:

Despite the transformative learning experiences we had created, were they working?

Were students genuinely engaged? Was our work making a real difference?

Were they helping learners to potentially be able to practice before encountering complex cases like my fathers?

I settled at my desk, immersed in a google search for insights on addiction and optimal learning approaches. After delving into various resources, I turned to this new AI technology called “ChatGPT” for further guidance and understanding. 

To my surprise, as I asked it "how to help people learn to diagnose addiction," ChatGPT didn't just provide information; it started to respond in a way that sparked something remarkable. It was as though ChatGPT, in its virtual presence, understood the depth of my questions on a personal level, resonating with the very essence of my inquiries.

In a sudden flash of inspiration, much like the lightning bolt that had initially ignited the creation of Genius Academy, I recognized the immense potential of AI and natural language processing in assessing modern learners. No longer was passive participation enough; AI could actively gauge progress and interpret subjective concepts, leading to a new era of educational interaction and personalized assessment. It could provide feedback on complex queries - far beyond the traditional 'google search'. It was the key to engaging the next generation of learners. 

I painstakingly built a prototype and my preliminary testing inspired me to pursue and create the Genius Immersive Practicum Lab. Now I had the job of training it to be capable of evaluating clinical skills, data sets and the nuanced language of reflection.No easy feat as anyone who has ever had to deal with another human’s emotions can attest to! 

Through the analysis of students' responses in reaction to cinematic true-to-life scenarios captured on video, and optimal rubrics of responses - we could validate their learning and then provide unique feedback on the essential soft and practical skills needed to ensure they were ready to practice. It was, at last, the 'flight simulator' I had always envisioned, and with it - we could potentially help create an army of mental health professionals prepared to fight (and perhaps conquer) the global mental health crisis.

At Genius Academy, we are not merely innovating within an educational system; we are transforming perceptions, practices, and ultimately, lives. Rooted in personal tragedy and powered by the indomitable human spirit, we aim to reshape the narrative of mental health care—changing it from a story of despair to one of hope and possibilities. We strive to make a previously unreachable quality of training available to all, empowering professionals who can make a real difference for individuals like my father, who could have been saved if the right support was in place.

With each teacher we ally with, every student they inspire, we create ripples of change that can potentially reach, touch, and transform millions of lives. We are not just responding to my personal loss, but answering the urgent call of many who are lost in a broken system. 

We stand at the precipice of change, armed with technology and human compassion, determined to make the world a better place—one well-equipped, empathetic practitioner at a time.

If there is a legacy worthy of my father's struggle, I believe, this is it.

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