Western State Hospital shares VR training with community partners

Contact: Tyler Hemstreet, DSHS Media Relations, 564–201–0027


Sara McCaslin, DSHS’ creative director, explains WSH’s virtual reality training to a visiting team of WSHA leaders.

A day of immersion in virtual reality training recently at Western State Hospital left Washington State Hospital Association leaders with lessons learned and insights to share about the training throughout the state.

“It is incredible work — and clearly supports the path that Western is on toward bringing a culture of safety and empathy to the hospital. We left feeling inspired and very excited,” said Brooke Evans, WSHA’s director of behavioral health.

WSHA is the member-led association representing all 113 hospitals in Washington state, including WSH. The association works with hospitals on quality improvement covering areas such as health equity, patient care, and behavioral health, using an “all teach, all learn” model to share hospitals’ best practices with each other.

“Our team behind the virtual reality training at Western State Hospital was thrilled to host leaders from WSHA in the classroom for a demonstration. With their coordination and thought leadership with hospitals across the state, it’s an exciting opportunity to have conversations on the future of training for behavioral health staff,” said Sara McCaslin, the Department of Social and Health Services’ creative director.

McCaslin helped lead the creation of the virtual reality training that’s used in WSH’s new employee orientation. It shares with staff the story of Lena, a single mom who experiences schizophrenia and enters care at the hospital.

Washington State Hospital Association leaders experience virtual reality training at Western State Hospital on Oct. 11.
Washington State Hospital Association leaders experience virtual reality training at Western State Hospital on Oct. 11.

“This offers staff a couple of things too they never get to see with our patients, and that’s the story before they get in here, and … the aftermath of this person getting to live their best possible life,” said Iggy Ortega, WSH’s instructional safety effectiveness administrator. “We can talk about this all day long but if you can’t see it, you can’t visualize it; it really doesn’t quite bring it home. Doing it this way is really giving us a chance to show them what their life looks like.”

The team behind the project also included Rick McKinnon, DSHS’ learning and development director; he helped develop the student learning objectives and ensured the VR training aligned with best practices in adult learning.

“Really understanding about people is the chief global outcome of this project, helping them to understand that people are more than what you see in front of you. They have a whole life, they are children who are loved by their parents, there are things that they enjoy doing, talents, hobbies — a full, rich life. That’s not always what you experience in the moment in crisis situations,” said McKinnon. “The better we can use our empathy skills, the safer everybody’s going to be.”

Others on the VR project team included hospital staff, patients, behavioral health experts and DSHS leaders — all working together to ensure that Lena’s story was realistic.

“Doing our patients justice and having some authenticity and being genuine — I think that’s where it’s really important to pull in patients, pull in staff and get a lot of that feedback,” said Dr. Jordan Charboneau, a WSH forensic psychologist who served as an advisor for the training.

He explained how he worked with both the script and the actor playing Lena to purposely show subtlety in progression of her symptoms, and in her healing. Charboneau coached her to show the confusion and fear that patients may feel when hearing voices or experiencing an altered reality. The realistic portrayal of what mental illness looks like was meant to reduce stereotypes and stigma, and to increase empathy for patients.

“The beauty of the art we’re trying to do is humanize patients,” Charboneau said. “VR really allows for perspective shifting, which I thought was amazing.”

The virtual reality training, which launched in November 2020, purposely complements the other trainings new employees take part in.

“All five episodes stretch throughout the two weeks (of NEO), and the idea is that once we talk about a topic, now we can actually immerse them in it and show them what it looks like in real life. So again, the focus is, this is a person first, they’re not a mental illness,” said Ortega.

Of the 160 NEO students who engaged in the VR training, 90% reported that it had a significant impact on their understanding of people with mental illness and their impact on patients, and 97% reported that it added significant value to their new employee orientation.

“Paired with tactical skills for verbal de-escalation, learners are sharing the VR experience helps them better understand their impact in supporting patients’ recovery and resiliency,” said McCaslin.

Changing the care experiences that patients receive can affect how they choose to interact with healthcare in the future, said Darcy Jaffe, WSHA’s senior vice president for safety and quality.

“They’re going to need health care forever, and these interactions really can make impacts on their future healthcare,” Jaffe said.

After watching all five segments of Lena’s story, the WSHA team experienced firsthand how effective the virtual reality training can be.

“You see the history, you saw her as a child growing up, you saw her as a mother, her first love, until you see she’s just like me — a shared human experience, and I thought that was really effective,” said Evans. “This helps you build safety through empathy, and I think hands down that’s a lesson we want all hospitals to know and experience.”

(By Suzie Ovel)