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Jay Jaehnke didn’t particularly like his virtual trip into the dark world of schizophrenia, except for the fact that it increased his empathy for people afflicted with the debilitating mental illness.

“I was very glad to get my goggles off because I felt very uncomfortable as a schizophrenic,” said Jaehnke, a board member for the Family & Children’s Center in La Crosse, where on Tuesday he donned a visor and headphones that simulate hallucinations.

Jaehnke, of Onalazka, took the virtual tour as part of the center’s unveiling of its new pharmacy in a partnership with Genoa Healthcare Pharmacy, a Seattle-based company that specializes in serving people with mental health and developmental disability issues.

The Janssen Pharmaceutical Cos. 3-D setup, called Mindstorm, immerses the wearer in the experience of hearing voices and experiencing hallucinations and delusions.

Schizophrenia, which affects about 2.2 million adults in the United States, submits its victims to such conditions, instilling paranoia that people are controlling their thoughts or plotting to harm them, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

“I have more compassion for people with schizophrenia,” Jaehnke said, noting that Mindstorm did, in fact, create a storm in his mind.

“I would see things that were not there, and a lot of voices were talking to me,” he said. “A lot of questions I had to repeat because I didn’t understand them.

“There was a lot of negativity with voices saying, ‘Don’t trust him’ or ‘Don’t believe him.’ It was very eye-opening. There was a lot of self-doubt.

“I would think this makes it very difficult to live a normal life,” he said. “I could see how people with this have trouble getting a job or maintaining a relationship.”

Vanessa Southworth, Wisconsin programs director for the Family & Children’s Center, said the machine “gives us a peek at how people with schizophrenia go about their daily lives. It helps to experience — even for a short period of time — to help provide more sympathetic, empathetic care.”

Dale Masten, Genoa’s government affairs director, said Mindstorm helps remove the stigma of mental illness.

It also is helpful to law enforcement workers, he said.

“Law enforcement is trained to know what it is, but when officers experience what schizophrenics do,” it broadens their perspective, Masten said.

Another observer said, “It helps give law enforcement a better perspective of what people might be experiencing if they don’t respond right away. They really are hearing voices, and the voices tell them not to comply.”

The Genoa pharmacy, in the lobby of the Family & Children’s Center’s headquarters at 1707 Main St., will not be available to the general public, just the 200 or so clients and 270 staffers, Southworth said.

The center served 3,000 people in its 40-some programs last year, she said.

“There is a lot of focus on integrating mental and physical health,” she said. “We are serving a growing population of people struggling with behavior health and developmental disability.”

Genoa, which has has 127 such pharmacies nationwide, including one in Madison, two in Milwaukee and about 10 in Minnesota, will tailor its services to those clients, she said. It will help administer some medications, and deliver others to center locations in La Crosse, Viroqua and Black River Falls, as well as Rochester and Winona in Minnesota, she said.

The center previously had used community pharmacies and will maintain relationships with them in case of emergencies, Southworth said.

Family and Children’s Center president and CEO Mike Boehm said the partnership with Genoa was about 18 months in the making.

When people ask why have an in-house pharmacy when others are available in the community, he said, “I tell them because it’s the right thing to do for our clients and our staff.”

Genoa’s mission dovetails with the Family & Children’s Center’s, he said.

“We serve individuals, but our vision is to treat the whole person,” Boehm said. “We know that if we treat individuals really well, we strengthen family and we strengthen communities.”

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Mike Tighe is the Tribune newsroom's senior citizen. That said, he don't get no respect from the cub reporters as he goes about his duly-appointed rounds on the health, religion and whatever-else-lands-in-his-inbox beats. Call him at 608-791-8446.

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Now we'll finally know what it's like to be Greg Luce!

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