Understanding Mental Health Challenges with Online Simulations

We hear about people’s experiences with mental illness and we may see how someone behaves as a result of a mental health challenge, and we can empathize. But it’s hard to imagine experiences very different from the way we experience things – of hearing voices in your head, being extremely sensitive to or constantly distracted by sights and sounds, or not being able to read and learn the way most people can. While we can’t truly experience what someone else is going through, we can now go online to get a sense of some of these experiences through online simulations of mental health conditions.

Learning differences and attention issues

Understood.org has developed an extensive series of online simulations, called “Through Your Child’s Eyes,” of a range of learning and attention issues. They include reading, writing, attention and organizing. Understood.org is a collaboration of 15 nonprofits working to support parents of children with learning differences.

The website is designed to give parents and family members a better understanding of what a child with learning differences is experiencing. The site allows you to experience, for example, the frustration when your hand won’t write what your brain is telling it to, or how hard it is to read when you have to decode each word. A range of experiences are presented based on selections you make for a child’s age/grade level and the specific issue (reading, writing, attention, math or organization issues). In each case, you’ll see a short video from a child who has the learning or attention condition, and then you are given an interactive simulation to see how the particular challenge might feel. At the end, an expert provides information on the issue.

Another site provides a glimpse into dyslexia (reading disorder). Developer Victor Widell, created a computer simulation of the way a friend of his described experiencing dyslexia. While individuals’ experiences differ, this simulation gives an idea of the type of challenge faced by some with dyslexia.

Sensory overload

Sensory issues, both being overly sensitive or under-sensitive, are common among many people with autism spectrum disorder. The Interacting with Autism project has developed an animation that gives you a glimpse into the experience of sensory overloadand its impact in everyday life.

There are also several short videos of sensory overload experience at the Autism Speaks website. These depict sensory overload in different settings from different perspectives. One video compares a typical person’s experience walking down the street with the experience of someone with autism spectrum disorder who has increased sensitivity to light and sound. Another video highlights autism advocate Carly Fleischmann, who is non-verbal and on the autism spectrum. This video simulation shows Carly with her family in a crowded coffee shop and the anxiety she experiences.

Hearing voices

Some people with schizophrenia hear voices that are not real (called auditory hallucinations). You can hear a brief simulation of the experience of hearing voices online at the Empowerment Center. The sample is part of a complete training and curriculum package, Hearing Voices That Are Distressing, developed by Patricia Deegan, Ph.D., to train mental health professionals.

Postpartum depression

The National Coalition for Maternal Mental Health has developed a short video on What Postpartum Depression Feels Like, providing a brief glimpse into the thoughts and feelings of a new mom’s experience with the condition. (See recent post on Pregnancy and Depression.)

None of us can know exactly what another person experiences, but these simulations can help us understand and empathize with many mental health challenges.

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