Roz Austin

Roz Austin, a doctoral student in Durham’s Centre for Medical Humanities and Department of Geography, who is also part of the ‘Hearing the Voice’ research team, recently attended the 7th World Hearing Voices Congress in Spain. In the first of a series of posts, she gives an account of her own presentation at the Congress, as well as some of the plenary sessions.

When I saw this year’s World Hearing Voices Congress advertised, I was struck by its title, ‘Building on our common experience’. For the Congress aimed to address mental suffering from the perspective of the lives of the sufferers, with the awareness that this is exacerbated by the current austerity that is being experienced not only in Spain, but also in other parts of Europe and the world. The Congress aimed to explore strategies to address this suffering and to create safe spaces where the phenomenon of voice-hearing can be shared. Its location was the historic city of Alcala de Henares, which is a short distance from Madrid. I was curious as to how individual stories of recovery would be described, and if austerity measures would be seen as having an impact on voice-hearers, and on mental health services. This was the third World Hearing Voices Congress that I had attended over the past few years, and I was hoping to forge more connections with voice-hearers and mental health professionals from other countries.

The Congress gave me the opportunity to present some of the findings of my doctoral research with voice-hearers who have migrated to Britain. My presentation focused on the case-studies of two African men, who have both experienced difficult life events in their early life that included bullying and bereavement, which they link to the onset of their voice-hearing. In particular, I discussed the interesting connections that they make between their trauma and the emotions that they experience, by comparing their different descriptions of their voices. The Congress gave me the opportunity to have feedback from voice-hearers who have migrated, and mental health professionals, and to reflect further on why it is that only a small number of people who are from the black and minority ethnic community attend hearing voices groups.

We also explored the option of a translator being present in a hearing voices group to assist a voice-hearer who has a language barrier, and needs to have the discussion in the hearing voices group translated for them. One lady in the audience had been involved in a group where a translator was present, and said that this worked well. It was noted that there was only a tiny number of people from the black and minority ethnic community present at the Congress. The point was made that the expense of travelling to Spain would put off many voice-hearers from coming to the Congress, and that in the cases of future Congresses it would be very helpful if there were some bursaries available for voice-hearers from the black and minority ethnic community to attend.

I was impressed by the varied programme of presentations and workshops at the Congress. Speakers included Professor Marius Romme, founder member of Intervoice; and Will Hall, the founder of Madness Radio (USA), whose presentation explored the impact of austerity on recovery. I hoped to be able to attend as wide a range of workshops as possible, and to use this experience to reflect on both my doctoral research and my own journey of recovery in learning to live well with voices. I appreciated the respectful space that the Congress created for people from many different countries to share their stories of living with voices. In particular, I hoped to learn about how other voice-hearers coped with stigma and discrimination. For, I myself encountered stigma during the fieldwork for my doctoral research, when I made a conscious effort to continue to share my lived experience. I felt that it was important that my lived experience of voice-hearing shaped both my data collection and analysis. It was also the case that my disclosure helped participants to feel more comfortable disclosing sensitive information to me. At the Congress I found that other voice-hearers had also experienced discrimination in their professional lives, and so I do not feel so alone in this respect.

This 7th World Hearing Voices Congress was consecutively translated into English and Spanish, and each attendee wore a headset, so that they could hear a translated version of each presentation. This emphasized that this was an international Congress, with voice-hearers from many different cultures sharing stories of their voices. One of the keynote speeches was given by Bhargavi Davar, from the Bapu Trust in India. Davar reflected on community programmes in Asia for helping people who are distressed. She said that it is important for article 19 of the Human Rights Act to be implemented, so that people who are distressed are fully able to persist in their communities. Davar explained that some people currently experience a high level of stigma: for example, some people who are highly distressed are tied to trees. Currently there are no psychiatric services in Global South, and Davar said that there is a demand for services. ‘It’s modern to have psychiatric services, so there are sweeping changes’, Davar reflected.

However, Davar thinks that it is important to have ‘a counter discourse’, and in her presentation she set out ‘to reconstruct scientific healing practices as a politics of the body’. Davar referred to examples of public performances of ’embodiment’, which happen frequently in Asia, and involve women performing their suffering in public spaces, such as in the streets or mosques. Davar observed that ‘you won’t be stigmatised, and certainly not institutionalised’ for giving a performance of embodiment. In Davar’s opinion such a performance of the body cannot be psychiatrically diagnosed – instead, she thinks that ‘it’s a way of escaping the psychiatric system’. Davar pointed out that in many cases ‘these are very popular women, who in their performances are inhabited by goddesses – they are able to foretell the future’. In those cases where women are ‘visibly distressed’, and ‘not able to connect’, Davar explained that sometimes an intervention is necessary, but ‘even then the term schizophrenia is not used’.

Davar thinks that the experience of hearing voices is also ‘a way of life’. She argued that it is important to ‘start talking long before it is an expression of distress’. She said that in the slums in India there are people ‘who have been through long-term trauma’. Davar said that it can be very helpful for them to do lots of drumming and breathing exercises. This promotes ‘healing through the sensory realm by using rhythm, sense of sight, touch and body movements’. In their communities people may try to understand ‘what are the voices?’ By exploring how voice-hearers are storying their voices, Davar thinks that this can promote recovery.

The rest of the Congress led to interesting conversations with other voice-hearers and mental health professionals from all over the world. In my second Blog-post I will reflect on some of the other interesting presentations from the Congress.

Live tweets from the Congress can be found under the hashtag #HearingVoices7th.

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