Fear of schizophrenia engulfed Korean society last May when a man diagnosed with the disease stabbed a random woman to death in a public restroom in Gangnam. A slew of negative opinions about schizophrenia and negative media coverage followed soon after. Schizophrenics became synonymous with murderers and ‘scary people’.
But are they, in fact, scary? Have we tried to understand their situation? As an intern reporter and medical student, I asked myself these questions as I set out to experience what it was like to suffer from the disease first-hand.
On February 1st, I took part in a program hosted by Janssen that let its employees ‘become’ a schizophrenic through the use of Virtual Reality (VR) technology.
VR technology is in the spotlight for entertainment such as games and amusement park rides. However, it is rare to use the technology to illustrate a specific disease, and particularly mental diseases. Several programs exist to convey the experience of wearing an oxygen mask or sitting in a wheelchair, but Janssen’s program is the first to demonstrate a mental disease.
The experience began when I put on special glasses and earphones and instantly became a car mechanic suffering from schizophrenia.
A Day in the Life of a Car Mechanic
My name is Skit Z. Frasier. I hope I don’t make any mistakes today. People make fun of me when I make mistakes. I’m so anxious that I can’t even say hello. I speak in a low voice with no confidence.
Suddenly my colleague turns to me and says, “I have to fix another car, would you repair this car?”
I start repairing the car, but I hear whispering. The auditory hallucinations begin.
(Auditory hallucination) “Can Skit fix the car? I am sure he’ll make a mistake!”
(Auditory hallucination) “The boss is waiting to fire you, Skit. Make another mistake and it’s over.”
I try to ignore the whispering and stand in front of the car, but the voices keep talking sarcastically.
(Auditory hallucination) “Skit can’t even repair a car! What a fool!”
The sarcastic remarks from my colleagues begin to distort even my vision, and the car wheel starts to look strange.
I go back to the office and start watching TV. Suddenly, the reporter mentions my name.
“Breaking news: the President has requested a meeting with Mr. Skit Z. Frasier at the Blue House at 6p.m.. Mr. Frasier was the Executive of the National Intelligence Service and acts as the representative adviser for national defense. He is a strong candidate to be nominated as the National Defense Minister…”
The President wants to see me. Right, I’m the expert on national defense. I shouldn’t be working here.
(Auditory hallucination) “The President is waiting for you. Hurry up. Go to the Blue House.”
I need to hurry. The President is waiting for me.
I turned to my boss and said I had to go home due to a personal emergency. The boss asks what’s wrong. I tell him that the president is waiting for me.
“What are you talking about?” he asks. “The Blue House?”
(Auditory hallucination) “You don’t have much time. Go to the Blue House.”
An Eye-Opening Experience
The auditory and visual hallucinations in the program were reproduced based on remarks of a real patient and examined by a professional. In the program, I constantly felt the ‘pitiful’ eyes of my colleagues and heard my unconfident inner voice.
Many materials deal with similar topics, but few offer memorable in-depth stories. This program resonates with the participants for a long time, because they can experience the movements and discomfort of the patients themselves.
It was fascinating to see the use of VR in the medical field. Whereas we can see wounds of an injured patient or hear the cough of a pneumonia patient, it is impossible to hear auditory hallucinations of a schizophrenic. The experience was eye-opening because it let me experience first-hand the symptoms that schizophrenics deal with on a day-to-day basis.
It helped me become more empathetic as I experienced the difficulties schizophrenics face in daily life due to their ‘distorted thinking processes’.
Schizophrenics often feel isolated because no one understands their auditory hallucinations. At the same time, they believe that someone might hurt them or imagine that someone is talking about them.
The widespread fear of schizophrenics could be alleviated by experiencing the patient’s symptoms and thinking processes. This could dispel fear and replace it with sympathy.
Janssen Korea said that the program is used to educate employees in the company, but plans to expand the program to the public. An officer at Janssen Korea said, “Through the use VR programs, I hope that we will be able to eliminate social prejudice against schizophrenia, and schizophrenia be regarded as a controllable chronic disease, not unlike diabetes or high blood pressure.”
I also thought schizophrenics were scary people before getting training in the psychiatry department. But my belief was wrong. They are not people to be scared of – they are scared people.
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