Collaboration • Knowledge • Leadership
People who hear voices can face an especially acute degree of stigma. They might be viewed as potentially angry or violent, driven to dark places by demons that whisper in their ears. “That’s not the case at all,” says Mind Australia’s Kate Drinan.
In fact, “some voices can be beneficial, super friendly and positive”, says Kate. “They often help with loneliness. A lot of people don’t actually want to get rid of their voices.”
Kate recently completed training run by Uniting’s Voices Vic Program. As a peer worker, they come into regular contact with members of Mind Australia’s consumer community who hear voices. Kate accessed MHV’s Lived Experience Workforce Grants Program in order to complete the training.
“It was excellent,” they say.
Kate explains the training contained specific learnings related to hearing voices, as well as skills that can be applied more broadly, such as techniques for group facilitation.
“It is peer led, run by people with lived experience of hearing voices.
“We debunked myths around hearing voices, and studied famous people who hear or heard voices, like Lady Gaga and Virginia Woolf. We spent time doing voice profiling, how people can depersonalise from their voices and talk about them in ways that aren’t overwhelming.”
Often hearing voices is a symptom of past trauma, says Kate.
“They’re there for a reason. They have an emotional message. They might be a call to integrate and process something that happened in the past.”
As such, advice to ignore or suppress the voices, or insistence that they’re not real, is detrimental.
“One example is that if you give half an hour to listen to your voices every day and cap it at that, often the voices will feel heard and grow calm. Whereas if you try to resist them and fight them, they can get bigger and bigger.”
Kate has worked at Mind Australia for two years. They had completed Bachelor degrees in Arts and Health Sciences, and also have their own lived experience of mental health issues and recovery. Kate was prompted to pursue peer work by the peer workers they’d met during their journey.
“I didn’t know what a peer worker was before that,” they admit. “They were a symbol of recovery and hope for me when I didn’t have any hope at all. They had been through the system, were kind of a living, walking example of recovery. I was inspired by that.”
Kate came to learn there was no strict definition of what a peer worker was.
“Different organisations define what a peer worker is differently,” Kate says. “At Mind Australia, peer workers have a kind of dual role. I do some of the work the other mental health practitioners do, like helping take people to appointments or doing admin.
“But I’m more focused on things like quality time … A typical day would involve one to one chats, I might go for a walk with someone, I might play ping-pong, run exercise or cooking groups — joyful activities. Also if someone wants to work on a goal I might help them with that.
“And if people want to hear my lived experience, I will share it. But a lot of the time, the symbolism of having a peer worker in your space is enough.”
As someone who both works as a peer worker and has had peer workers of their own, Kate cannot overstate the importance of having people with lived or living experience in the workforce.
“They act as a bridge between the clinical and human side of mental health,” Kate says. “And they act as a symbol of recovery and hope. To see a person who has been through a lot of shit and come out the other side and is thriving is really inspiring.
“A lot of people also can’t advocate for themselves, so peer workers have a strong sense of advocacy. We’re able to speak up for people that might not be able to speak up for themselves.”
Drawing upon the Uniting training, Kate eventually plans to set up a hearing voices group among residents of Mind Australia’s supported independent living residences.
But already they have had cause to put their learnings into practice. Just days after completing the training, Kate encountered someone in crisis who was hearing voices. As is the hallmark of all peer work, they found that respectful and empathetic listening was key.
“I was able to use those ways of talking about voices that weren’t ‘othering’,” Kate says. “To say I know this is a reality for you. I don’t hear them but I know it is true for you.”
Round three of the Lived Experience Grants Program is open now. The program is funded by the Victorian Department of Health.