Posted on 4 April 2019
On Friday 22 March 2019 the University hosted a Making Sense of Voice-hearing Conference. This conference was a joint initiative between The International Centre for Mental Health Social Research (ICMHSR), the Department of Social Policy and Social Work, and the Department of Health Sciences. Voice-hearing is often stigmatized in Westernized society, and the aim of the conference was to explore both voice-hearers and mental health professionals’ ways of making sense of voices.
One of the central themes of the conference was to understand the relationships between voice-hearers and their voices. Durham University’s ‘Hearing the Voice’ research project, funded by the Wellcome Trust, presented their latest research findings from a mixed methods longitudinal study with users of an Early Intervention Service. They described how these voice-hearers had relationships with often richly ‘characterful’ voices, such as ‘stereotypical person-like presentations (an angry man)’. Drawing on the research of the psychologists of Wilkinson and Bell (2016), the research team explored the varieties of agent-representation in voice-hearing experiences.
Ruth Lafferty, a former psychotherapist and a voice-hearer, talked movingly about how she uses paintings and charcoal drawings to explore her relationship with a male voice that she calls ‘Grande’, who she has come to view as a valued companion. Emotional distress features in her work, for as Lafferty describes, ‘my current vein or work is exploring the metaphor trauma and damage within the landscape. Scars from environmental impact, our mountains and valleys, our river routes and coast lines’. Lafferty seeks to present fragments in her work that help her to express her ‘emotional landscape’.
Dr Roz Austin, a Research Associate in the Department of Social Policy and Social Work, also explored how voice-hearers use creative mediums, such as poetry or memoir-writing, to mediate relationships with their voices. As a geographer, she was interested in how voice-hearers map their relationship to their voices spatially. She described how Tracy Harris, a professional flautist, describes in her memoir how sometimes the power balance can be clearly weighted in favour of the voice. Harris could be said to be experiencing what the Dutch social psychiatrist Marius Romme identifies as ‘the startling phase’ in voice-hearing (Romme, 1993), when the voice-hearer feels confused and overwhelmed by the voice that she hears. The voice quickly seems to colonise for Harris many of the spaces that have hitherto been private. Harris maps her relationship to this voice spatially. She describes it as ‘an unexpected guest, living with me in my house and callously commenting on all aspects of my life’.
Other presenters were also interested in how voices inhabit different spaces. Rob Allison, a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Health Sciences, describes how some interactions between voice-hearers and mental health professionals may lead to coercive treatment, which can make their voices louder and more intimidating. The voice-hearers may struggle to cope with this experience, which may lead to a forced medical intervention.
Dr Joachim Schnackenberg, a social worker and psychiatric nurse, described how this pattern of relating to intimidating voices may lead to a pattern of chronicity where the patient is disabled by the experience. Dr Schnackenberg advises that voice-hearers are encouraged to accept their voices, and adopt a neutral position towards them, when they engage in what is known as ‘voice-dialoguing’. In this method, a facilitator talks directly to voices in order to explore their motives, and discovers different ways of relating to them. Dr Schnackenberg understands the voices to be selves that relate to overwhelming emotional difficulties in the voice-hearer’s life. He argues that learning to relate to the voices better is key to the voice-hearer having a good recovery. The conference was pioneering in that it created effective collaboration between voice-hearers, mental health professionals and researchers.