Advanced Simulations Teach Empathy for Mentally Ill
> 5/23/2007 10:33:19 AM

There is a great deal of uncertainty, and even fear, that comes with confronting a person who is having a psychotic episode. For those that have never struggled with mental illness, the experience of hallucinating, along with the paranoia that can often accompany them, can be extremely foreign and threatening. As Wired magazine detailed in a short piece in their most recent issue, new technologies are now helping police, emergency responders and others who may have to deal with a person having a psychotic break to better understand and empathize with the extreme reactions and behaviors that the hallucinations can create.

The system covered in Wired is called Virtual Halucinations and was created by Janssen, a mental health pharma firm, and Elan Communications. Two separate experiences, available through the Virtual Hallucinations system, are described:

In one, you're riding a bus in which other riders appear and disappear, birds of prey claw at the windows, and voices hiss, "He's taking you back to the FBI!" The other features a trip to the drugstore, where the pharmacist seems to be handing you poison instead of pills, and hostile customers stare at you in disgust.

While there are no parameters for what a schizophrenic might experience during a psychotic episode, the Virtual Hallucinations system was developed with the help of numerous mental health practitioners and researchers. Already it has proven a successful venture, and many states are working to incorporate it into training for emergency workers and police officers. As this feature story from a northern Michigan paper makes clear, it's not only those receiving the training that benefit. People struggling with mental illness benefit as well, as chances are better that if a responder encounters a person having a hallucinatory episode, they will better know how to react and respond to avert any real danger.

Even for trained mental health professionals, dealing with somone experiencing hallucinations can be difficult, and there is room for better training methods to help. Aside from the high-end simulations like Virtual Hallucinations, other reseachers are using more accessible technology to create simulations that can help explore and understand schizophrenia and other mental health problems. In this study, researchers from UC-Davis used Second Life, a free online platform, to create an experience that simulated hallucinations. They had success, as evidenced through survey data, at illustrating the nature of the problem and in helping others to gain perspective.

The approach taken by the team from UC-Davis showed that simulations need not be entirely emersive to have a profound effect in helping others to understand mental illness. There are cost-efficient options available, which mean that this type of simulation exercise could reasonably become a mainstay in training programs for first responders and those who work with individuals suffering from mental illness. Hallucinations can be disturbing and extremely difficult for those who are experiencing them. If others can have a better understanding of the emotions and sensations involved, it's possible that they could help deal with these sitautions more easily.

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