Lena’s Journey, a new Virtual Reality (VR) mini-series, is the cornerstone of Western State Hospital’s (WSH) newly revamped 2-week employee training program. The five-part series, produced by Chocolate Milk & Donuts, was created to immerse employees into the lives of those living with severe mental illness. The goal is to help staff better empathize with patients. The training program is the first of its kind to leverage 360 video technology and storytelling in this way.
“This is cutting-edge technology with proven results and is just one of the ways we are headed towards a transformation of mental health care in our state,” says Cheryl Strange, the Secretary of the Department of Social and Health Services. “We know that just how you say ‘no’ to someone experiencing symptoms of mental illness can make the difference between a good interaction with a patient and a violent episode.”
On the first day of training, new employees get introduced to Lena, a single mom and a musician who is living with schizophrenia. Due to her disorienting illness, she makes a terrible mistake. Through VR, trainees go with Lena on her journey through the legal system and eventual admittance to WSH. The State Hospital partnered with Chocolate Milk & Donuts (CM&D), a VR/AR creative agency that specializes in immersive storytelling, to bring the story to life in a headset.
The decision for WSH to invest in VR training was heavily influenced and inspired by a 2018 Stanford study simulating the experience of becoming homeless. The research found VR has the ability to be more effective in developing empathy and long-lasting compassion compared to other types of media.
“Telling a story about the struggles of mental illness can work in any medium, but telling it in VR allowed us to do something that no other format can do. It lets the viewer experience the symptoms and confusion that Lena, a woman with severe schizophrenia, deals with. This gives employees the opportunity to grow as individuals and better help patients suffering return home to their loved ones,” states Wes Evans, creative director at CM&D.
The training has been underway for just a few months and is already getting great initial reviews. Terry Stevenson, a registered nurse at the hospital said “I’ve heard people say they hear voices, but I’ve never seen something make it so real. I think this will help me when I’m talking to a patient and they’re not responding.”
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VR is proving to be a valuable tool for not just technical training, like teaching someone how to operate a forklift, but also for soft skills education like compassion and empathy training. VR training can trick the viewer’s mind into believing that what they are seeing is actually happening, leading to the creation of memories in the user’s mind. When looked at through a scientific lens, these memories are indistinguishable when compared to the memories of a person who actually experienced the same event in the real world.
One patient, who is not being named to protect their privacy, said of the entire new employee training experience, “It’s been phenomenal. It’s changed peoples’ demeanor and the way they handle things. They handle us with more care.”
Western State Hospital is the largest inpatient psychiatric facility west of the Mississippi, providing evaluation and inpatient treatment for individuals with serious or long-term mental illness.
Chocolate Milk & Donuts is an award-winning immersive creative agency dedicated to the art of storytelling and the power of virtual reality. The company specializes in helping partners through the entire immersive production lifecycle.
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