Mental Health Activists to Speak November 18 at MHC

MHC psychology professor Gail Hornstein is broadening her role as a teacher this year, and her latest students will not be from the Five Colleges, but mental health professionals and former patients who are being trained to facilitate new support groups across the state for people who hear voices or experience the kinds of extreme states diagnosed as "psychosis."

She's also bringing British mental health activists Ron Coleman and Paul Baker, two of the “founding fathers” of the global Hearing Voices movement, to campus to present "Is Recovery from Schizophrenia Possible?" on Thursday, November 18 at 7:30 pm in Cleveland L2.

A relatively new approach to dealing with mental illness, the Hearing Voices Network  (HVN) originated in Europe, where there are now hundreds of peer-run support groups, including more than 180 in the United Kingdom alone.

"This very innovative approach developed over the last 20 years," Hornstein says. People who hear voices are typically diagnosed with schizophrenia, but "this is an alternative approach that de-pathologizes these experiences and helps people understand and work through them. It was developed in partnership with patients and mental health professionals who disagree that you have to get rid of the experience through medication in order to help the patient.

"People with these experiences feel strongly there's a link between the voices and trauma that preceded them," she adds. "This is not group therapy, but a peer support group--usually led by a facilitator--that helps people to understand what's happening and to cope better. It's like having a chronic condition such as arthritis and taking up yoga to make it less distressing."

The Hearing Voices movement has spread throughout Europe and Africa--and even as far as Japan--but has been slow to gain popularity in the United States. Hornstein, who has a long-standing interest in the patient's experience of illness, wrote about the movement in her 2009 book, Agnes's Jacket. She also founded and for the past several years has co-facilitated one of the country's first support groups for people who hear voices or experience other extreme emotions or unusual states of mind. The group is run through the Western Massachusetts Recovery Learning Community (RLC) in Holyoke.

Earlier this month Hornstein gave the keynote address at the Hearing Voices Network's Second World Congress in Nottinghamshire, England, where some 400 mental health professionals and patients from all over the world gathered to advance alternatives to medication as the prevalent response to hallucinations. This month she and Oryx Cohen, codirector of the RLC, will begin training some of the many people who want to learn to facilitate a hearing voices support group in this country.

"We'll have four three-hour training sessions for 17 people, but so many have applied that we're already scheduling a second training course for the spring," Hornstein says. "This is really a turning point in this country."

Baker, the coordinator for Intervoice, an international online site for HVN and related resources, will talk about the history of the Hearing Voices movement in Europe and how he started the first Hearing Voices group in England. Coleman will discuss his own personal experiences with hearing voices and how the Hearing Voices Network was instrumental in his recovery. Their lecture is free and open to the public, and there will be time allotted for questions and dialogue. The event is co-sponsored by the Western Massachusetts RLC and Mount Holyoke College.