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Virtual Trip

Local police officers see -- and hear -- what it's like to be schizophrenic.

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I'm sitting on a public bus directly behind an overweight, aging driver. My goal is to get a prescription filled at the neighborhood pharmacy. Yet it seems to be taking forever to get there, and the noise on the bus is unbearable.

Kids are screaming and laughing. People are talking loudly, their voices overlapping in a maddening roar. It seems as if they're shouting directly into my ears. I look up at the rearview mirror, and the bus driver begins talking to me in demonic whispers.

I notice that the passengers' faces seem to change. One minute a little girl is sitting behind me, and then she morphs into a nurse. Then, like a weird acid trip, the bus becomes an ambulance, and I'm alone with the nurse.

"How are you feeling? Are you okay?" asks the nurse, as she looks at me quizzically. I don't answer, and the ambulance becomes a bus once again.

Suddenly, the real world chimes in as Tony Mitchell asks me to remove my goggles and headphones.

"Do you see what it's like for a schizophrenic? Can you understand what goes on in their minds?" asks Mitchell, the district manager for Janssen Pharmaceutical, the company behind Virtual Hallucinations Software.

I had been watching a short virtual-reality video intended to teach police crisis officers what it's like to be schizophrenic, a mental illness marked by distorted thinking and hallucinations. The presentation is viewed through a headset with goggles and headphones attached to a laptop.

About 30 local officers viewed the video as part of training for the Memphis Police Department's Crisis Intervention Team (CIT), a special police unit developed in 1988 to deal with mentally ill people.

This presentation marks the first time CIT officers have had any sort of virtual-reality training.

"These guys may have heard stories about people hearing voices in their heads, but this puts a whole new perspective on schizophrenia," says Sam Cochran, who heads the CIT program. "Now officers can say, I know that what you see and hear is real to you."

Before, officers being trained to deal with schizophrenia would sit in a chair with their eyes closed while three or four of their colleagues would chatter incessantly in their ears.

Janssen developed the video with the help of a schizophrenic who had suffered from the disease for 30 years. Mitchell says schizophrenics have a hard time distinguishing the voices in their heads from voices in the real world. Thus, they have a harder time following orders when confronted with a police scenario.

"I once had to deal with a guy in a delusional state. He was chasing people with a knife, and he didn't know what was real," says new CIT officer M.L. Clark, after viewing the presentation. "Now that I've seen this, I can sort of imagine what was going on in his head."

The Memphis CIT was the first such unit in the U.S., and since its formation, other police departments around the country have followed suit in developing their own teams.

Officers from Johnstown, Pennsylvania, were at the training, in hopes of forming a similar CIT team there. This week, officers from New Jersey and Montana will also be in town studying the Memphis model.

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