Review of “International Network Toward Alternatives & Recovery” conference (Liverpool, June 2014)

Roz Oates, 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, writes:

International Network Toward Alternatives and Recovery

International Conference: Liverpool, UK 25 – 27 June 2014

Between 25 and 27 June, I attended a conference on ‘Power to Communities: Healing Through Social Justice’ in Liverpool. This event was organised by the International Network Toward Alternatives and Recovery. There were a number of interesting presentations. Particularly stimulating was the talk which the social sciences researcher, Bhargavi Davar, gave us about embodied healing in Seher, a community mental health project in India. Davar argued that therapists need to find alternative ways of dealing with women’s mental distress, to the Western model that views the Self as One. She gave us the example of the practice of ‘selfing’, where therapy brings the person back to the ‘I’ again and again. This allows for a splitting, which recognises a second self, a third self, and so forth. Davar stressed that this is a dynamic process, where the woman views each self as part of the self. She suggested that she has found this a particularly helpful strategy for working with women who live in slums, many of whom have experienced trauma and may consequently believe that some parts of their body are missing. Davar said that her project aims to work with women before they enter the mental health system, and before a diagnosis is achieved, for this way women are more likely to be actively involved in their recovery. The women are encouraged to view their body as a tangible space that they own, and which is ultimately undiagnosable.

Brendan Stone, a professor of English at Sheffield University, spoke movingly about his recovery from mental health difficulties, which included him finding education to be a way of connecting to others. He reflected that when he enrolled on an access course, he found that he was part of a network in the classroom that moved him from a marginalized disabled position to learning helpful concepts that increased his social capital, and much more. Stone is currently embracing the NHS Trust’s initiative to set up Recovery Colleges, which aim to move people away from being service-users to students who enrol on courses. Stone argued that ‘you should be thinking about education, not just about mental health’. Stone is interested in models of education that provide critical pedagogy, and enable ‘students to become creators and critics of knowledge’. Stone hopes that education will draw out the enthusiasm, skills and expertise of service-users, where they learn from each other. He hopes that this will increase their sense of agency both in respect of how they learn and what they learn. At present Stone is running a writing project called Storying Sheffield, which is for second year undergraduate students studying English at Sheffield University, and for service-users with mental health difficulties. Stone said, ‘the focus of storying Sheffield is learning about Sheffield, and then producing representations and stories about everyday lives, with an emphasis on identity, place and history’. He did not intend for the course to be therapy, but to bring together people to do something interesting. It did not occur to him at the outset that at the end of the course people’s mental health would be improved.

Jacqui Dillon, the Chair of the Hearing Voices Movement, gave a presentation on ‘Making Sense of Voices’. Last year, the Hearing Voices Movement celebrated twenty five years of the approach to voice-hearing that has been pioneered by the psychiatrist Marius Romme and the researcher Sandra Escher. This marked a radical shift from mainstream psychiatry, with Romme and Escher arguing that voices can be made sense of by looking at the traumatic circumstances in the voice-hearer’s life that provoked them. Dillon said that she is trying to get trauma onto the psychotic map. She said that trauma fails to take into account more mundane ways in which people become mentally distressed, such as socio-economic factors. Dillon said that ‘bad things happen to people and drive them crazy’. Dillon claimed that Romme and Escher have found that 77% of voice-hearers have had bad things happen to them. She explained that the Hearing Voices Movement approach is ‘a liberation process that’s about helping people to feel much better about themselves as voice-hearers’. This involves the voice-hearer ‘negotiating with the voices and trying to feel much better about the voices’. Dillon considers that ‘voice-hearing is a significant and meaningful experience’. She said that it is unfortunate that voice-hearing continues to be stigmatised in the West, with people being conditioned not to listen to their voices. She mentioned Ron Coleman, who is a voice-hearer, who found it liberating to be told that his voices were ‘real’ in a hearing voices group. Dillon said that hearing voices groups create spaces where there is no pressure to share the voice-hearing experiences. It is helpful to view the voices as metaphorical language that can be translated into real life challenges. The challenge is for the person to understand their voices in relation to their life experiences.

      

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