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Workshop simulates voices that haunt schizophrenics

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HAVE you ever heard someone call out your name, but there was no one in the room?

For most people, this only happens occasionally. But people who have schizophrenia often hear voices, and the voices don't just call out their name. The voices can shout out nasty comments like -- "You stink" or "Everyone is watching you" -- making it difficult and frustrating to concentrate on any activity.

And what is most frustrating for people with schizophrenia is that no one understands what they are going through.

Fortunately, Schizophrenia Society Inc. Manitoba puts on a workshop that simulates the experience of hearing voices, so health care workers and the family of people who have schizophrenia can understand what it's like to live with voices.

Dr. Pat Deegan, an American woman who has schizophrenia, created the workshop used by Schizophrenia Society Inc. Manitoba She came up with the idea when she saw medical students using wheelchairs, to get a sense of being physically handicapped. She realized that something like that was needed for schizophrenia.

Jane Burpee, public education co-ordinator at the Schizophrenia Society, leads the workshops in Manitoba. Burpee begins each workshop by explaining what schizophrenia is not.

"Schizophrenia is not a split personality," says Burpee. "In fact, there is no such thing."

The symptoms of schizophrenia include delusional and disorganized thinking. The most common symptom is hallucinations, usually hearing voices.

"Sixty per cent of people with schizophrenia hear voices and of those, 75 per cent hear voices that are distressing," says Burpee.

To experience what it's like to hear these voices, the workshop participants put on Walkmans and listen to mumbling voices and degrading comments such as: "You are swine" and "You disgust me."

Series of tests

The participants do not just sit and listen; they do a series of tests to see if they can concentrate with their Walkmans on. The tests are fairly simple: reading comprehension, an interview, and geometry puzzles. But following directions and paying attention is difficult when something is yelling at you from inside your head.

"I've had people cry in the workshop", says Burpee. "People who are high academic achievers and expect a lot, could not answer the questions."

Sean Tellier and Bev Shwaluk are fourth-year nursing students at the University of Manitoba who recently went through the workshop.

"Sometimes I had to give in to the voice," says Tellier. "It said something that made me go 'Whoa', and then I could not concentrate."

"It was terrible, I was very annoyed and frustrated. After a while, I didn't want to bother," says Shwaluk.

The voices workshop did give Shwaluk some insight into what it's like to live with voices and how not to treat people with schizophrenia.

"I can see how the voices contribute to a feeling of anxiety and hopelessness," says Shwaluk. "If you treat someone coldly, it's only going to make the problem worse."

For more information on the Hearing Voices workshop and other Schizophrenia Society services, call 786-1616.

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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 30, 2002 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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