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Virtual reality program gives a glimpse into mental illness
May 7, 2006
By Mary Jimenez

Shreveport police Cpl. Leo Fartaczek slipped on a headset with goggles Friday morning and prepared to enter the world of a schizophrenic.

It's loud, disorienting, tiring and punishing.

In the five- to 10-minute program created by Janssen Pharmaceutical, a manufacturer of prescription medications for the treatment of schizophrenia and bipolar mania, the participant chooses their virtual experience and is led through a range of visual and auditory hallucinations during a ride on a bus, a trip to the doctor's office or a trip to a pharmacy located in the back of grocery store.

"I might slow down next time (I encounter someone with schizophrenia)," said Fartaczek, who along with other police at the training said weekly, even daily, interaction with mentally ill individuals is common. "It's given me some insight into how they might be feeling."

It's a reaction Peggy Gaffney Shemwell likes to hear.

Shemwell is the chief executive officer of Community Support Programs in Shreveport, a nonprofit agency that serves the mentally ill and homeless and has the virtual program on loan for two weeks from Jenssen.

"It may help people understand why a person with schizophrenia may not be responding to you," Shemwell said. "We use the program and hear and see the delusions and know they aren't real, but for a schizophrenic, it's all very real."

Community Support Programs is also offering the training to the Shreveport Fire Department and agencies in the community that work with, serve and come in contact with the mentally ill individuals.

Schizophrenia is often misunderstood by the public, Shemwell said. It's a chronic brain disorder that causes distorted thought and perception, but it's not a split or multiple personality disorder, a different and extremely rare problem.

It affects about 1 percent of the population, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

In the virtual program simulating a trip to the pharmacy, the participant hears voices popping in and out of their head. Some are soft, some loud -- even yelling -- and many of them are paranoid. People stare at you from every aisle, some seem to be able to read your mind, others are afraid of you. A person in a television monitor screams at you. As you get to the pharmacy counter you can hear the pharmacists whispering and laughing and then they hand you a prescription of what looks like "poison," with a big scull and cross bones on the bottle's label.

It's a series of delusions that, Shemwell said, is very real for schizophrenic patients.

"Because it manifests itself behaviorally it's debilitating, but there is hope if they can stay on medication," Shemwell said, adding that's not always easy. "When patients began to feel better, sometimes they stop taking the medication and some don't like the way they feel when they're on the medication. The old generation drugs would change the whole personality, but the newer drugs have a lot less side effects."

The police taking the training say all their prior training in dealing with the mentally ill has come from lecture and on-the-job training. Most already know the people on their beat that suffer from a mental illness.

"We get the same calls from the same neighborhoods almost daily," said Cpl. Hans Hopkins, who has worked with the Police Department for 16 years. "When they're on their medication there's no problem, but you can definitely tell when they're not taking it. Anything we can learn is good."

Communication techniques


  • ~Speak clearly and simply.
    ~Limit conversation to single statements and questions.
    ~Remember that the delusions and/or hallucinations are real to the person with the schizophrenia.
    ~Do not argue with the schizophrenic about whether his/her perceptions are real or false.
    ~You may point out to the schizophrenic that they do not have to listen to the voice.
    ~Find a way to empathize. Acknowledge that you know what they are hearing/seeing can be upsetting.
    ~Provide structure.
    ~Ask about medications.
    ~Most persons carry a card with emergency information if they have been diagnosed.
 

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