Surviving College as a Voice Hearer, report by Diana Girsdansky

Pile of Books
Pile of Books

A friend who presented at the Hearing Voices conference this summer (the Ninth Annual World Hearing Voices Congress, Boston, August 16 to 18, 2017) was looking for a travel companion. Without one, she felt, she could be at risk of psychiatric detention while travelling over the border; her freezing up under stress in airports had led to attention from security personnel in the past. In the spirit of personal support, we travelled together. Her presentation was well attended and received, and she made some wonderful connections with colleagues, as people do at conferences.

I attended presentations by people from around the world who gathered to share research, experiences, artwork and stories, as well as formal and informal responses to unusual experiences and states. One of my favourite sessions was led by two women in their early twenties. Both are engaged students and voice-hearers, as well as being students of psychology at Mt. Holyoke, an elite women’s college in Massachusetts. They shared strategies on “How to Survive College as a Voice Hearer.”

Alison Branitsky is a senior at Mt. Holyoke, advocating for alternative perspectives on psychosocial disability. She hopes to pursue graduate work in “understanding trauma, voice hearing, and other unshared experiences.” She is working part time doing research for well known voice-hearer, Eleanor Longden, PhD, whom she met when Eleanor accepted an invitation to lecture at the college. (https://www.ted.com/talks/eleanor_longden_the_voices_in_my_head).

Alison encouraged the students and prospective students in the audience to seek out academic accommodations made available through college disabilities resources departments (in the States these are rights-based accommodations protected under the American Disabilities Act). Helpful accommodations include permission to:

  • Audio-record classroom lectures;
  • Take exams in a quiet testing room where she was free to talk out loud to her voices;
  • Turn in assignments late, when necessary; and
  • Receive excused absences when necessary.

Sarah Felman graduated from Mt. Holyoke in the Spring with honours and a double major in anthropology and psychology. She was a champion jumper on the college’s equestrian team. In 2016, she received the peer leadership award from Mt. Holyoke’s psychology department as the founder and facilitator of the college’s first peer-to-peer support group. She is a certified facilitator of Hearing Voices support groups and continues to advocate for students who attend the college and struggle with psychosocial impairments. She talked about the necessity of self-care and voices-care. For her, this included making appointments with her voices. She made three short daily appointments with her voices throughout college. “They needed attention and compassion.” One voice in particular, with a childlike demeanor, needs lots of nurturing, she explained. She set aside fifteen-minute intervals after breakfast, lunch and dinner in quiet spaces: empty bathrooms on campus, or her dorm room when her roommate was out.

Sarah also found it helpful to recruit voices to help her study and take exams, and to converse with them on paper during classes, if necessary. (She noted that looks as if one is taking notes.)

Both women said it was important to find allies in ones community through

  • peer support groups;
  • chaplains; and, eventually,
  • good friends at school.

Alison and Sarah were fortunate to have an ally in one of their psychology profs, Gail Hornstein. In an interview on the Mt. Holyoke website we read that:

[Hornstein’s] 2009 book Agnes’s Jacket: A Psychologist’s Search for the Meanings of Madness talks about her realization that listening to patients’ own accounts of their experiences is key to alleviating their suffering. “Madness is more code than chemistry,” she has said. “If we want to understand, we need translators—native speakers, not just brain scans.”

Hornstein has helped train some 200 facilitators over the past six years, and—with her colleagues at the peer-run RLC—has made Western Massachusetts a hub of Hearing Voices Network activity. This approach argues that hearing voices, in itself, is not a symptom of psychosis, but “an understandable response, often to traumatic situations, that can be interpreted, understood, and coped with.”

“The most important thing Hearing Voices groups do is encourage the person to ask, ‘Why are the voices there? What are they saying and why?’” said Hornstein. She has observed or led hundreds of such peer support sessions, and says frightening, dictatorial voices can be combatted the same way as schoolyard bullies: by confronting the belief. Doing that, she says, can “transform the fear into understanding and then empowerment” (see https://www.mtholyoke.edu/media/offering-new-hope-those-who-hear-voices).

Sarah and Alison reminded students:

  • You belong! You have nothing to apologize for or to be ashamed about; and
  • You have something to contribute!