The Sights and Sounds of Schizophrenia
Drug Company Creates Simulation of Illness' Symptoms
Listen to Joanne Silberner's report.
View a multimedia slideshow of highlights of one Janssen Pharmaceutica simulation of a schizophrenic episode.
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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.
"This, of course, is really a delusion, it’s part of the schizophrenic thinking, that everyone is looking at you and paying attention to you and is afraid of you."
Silberner describes more of the simulated hallucinations: “People in the produce aisle disappear, and no one else notices -- were they ever really there? From a TV monitor, a man in a commercial yells directly at you. The label on a bottle of pills turns into a skull and crossbones."
Hearing voices is a nearly universal symptom of schizophrenia, and the simulation reproduces that in a way that Frey says is very authentic, and Silberner says is alarming: “The voices jump around you -- they’re in front, now behind, now to your left, now on your right. They're persistent, impossible to ignore or filter out."
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."
Browse more NPR stories on schizophrenia.
National Schizophrenia Foundation
The Web site for the National Mental Health Association has a fact sheet on schizophrenia and how to detect symptoms in children.
The first-ever report on mental health by the U.S. Surgeon General has extensive information about schizophrenia and other mental disorders.
National Alliance for the Mentally Ill