The Sights and Sounds of Schizophrenia

Schizophrenia Update, October 2002

By Joanne Siebert, NPR

Aug. 29, 2002 -- The textbook description of schizophrenia is a listing of symptoms: delusions, hallucinations, disorganized speech and behavior. But what does schizophrenia really feel like? NPR's Joanne Silberner reports on a virtual reality experience that simulates common symptoms of the mental illness.

Janssen Pharmaceutica, a company that makes a drug treatment for schizophrenia, has created a multimedia simulation that it says lets a participant see the world through the eyes and ears of a person with schizophrenic illness. Janssen created the simulation as an education tool for doctors and others who want a more visceral understanding of the illness.

Silberner, who experienced the simulation, says it works this way: "For five to 10 minutes, someone wanting to know what it feels like to have untreated schizophrenia puts on goggles and headphones, and sees and hears a range of hallucinations. You can choose your virtual reality -- what happens on a trip to the doctor's office, or on a ride on a city bus." In the program she experienced, a caseworker takes the schizophrenia patient to a grocery store with a pharmacy in the back, to refill a prescription.

To create the virtual reality project, technical director Stephen Streibig consulted a group of people with schizophrenia, including Daniel Frey, 26. Frey describes what he and Silberner experienced in the program: “When you first walk into the pharmacy, you’re walking through the aisles and there are people staring at you, just staring at you from every aisle. And there’s one instance where there is a woman sort of protecting her children from you when you walk through the aisle.

Dr. Sam Keith, medical advisor on the virtual reality project, is a veteran psychiatrist who’s heard thousands of patients describe schizophrenic episodes. Still, after trying the simulation, Keith said, “When it’s real, it’s different -- it’s very frightening, it’s very scary."

Streibig said that’s precisely the effect he hoped to achieve: After years of the illness being misdiagnosed, mismanaged and stigmatized, he says, “People should understand what it’s like to go through this."

Even though schizophrenia patient Frey consulted on the project, he found the simulation too disturbing to sit all the way through. When Silberner tells him she was terrified by the experience, Frey responds, “Yeah, you ought to be… Imagine not being able to take off the goggles, the helmet."

For the full story, with slides and more information on the new Janssen Pharmaceutica simulation of schizophrenia - see the following link:



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