There’s no two ways about it – I love my life (and my work). Last week, accompanied by two colleagues – Dirk Corstens (Intervoice Chair and dutch psychiatrist) and Slobodanka Popovic (a systemic therapist working in the NHS) – I had the privilege to visit Belgrade and Sarajevo to stimulate the development a Hearing Voices Network in the West Balkans. This visit was supported by Intervoice and Mind in Camden and hosted by Prostor and Metanoia. The training venues were donated by I.A.N and Metanoia.
The following is a few reflections from the trip, sharing some of the things I have learned along the way.
16 June: Living with Voices @ I.A.N.
Last year, Slobodanka and myself travelled to Belgrade to run two days of workshops with Prostor, Dusa and I.A.N at the Centre for Cultural Decontamination. Despite the stigma and prejudice surrounding mental health issues in the region, I was blown away by the courage and openness of those attendees who shared their experiences throughout the training. At the end of our time there it was clear that there is definitely a need for a Hearing Voices peer support group in the area.
On 16 June, we invited members and volunteers of two NGO organisations (Prostor and Duša) to join us at I.A.N. to build on last year’s visit. Whereas the last visit covered the diversity voice-hearing experience, this half day workshop shared more detail about the Hearing Voices Network itself, and the role of peer support groups. Members had the chance to share some of their experiences and think about what helps/doesn’t help. Once again, I was stunned by the way members welcomed us and embraced the approach. At the end of the day, we were all tasked with the clear mission of developing the first Hearing Voices Group in Belgrade – something we are committed to doing.
16 June: Open Event @ I.A.N.
As the ‘Innovative Approaches’ workshop was sold out, Mina (our host – from Prostor) invited those unable to attend on Tuesday to an open event. This gave us the opportunity to explore the development of the Hearing Voices Movement in a smaller group. Participants also took the chance to ask me about my personal experience of voice-hearing and vision-seeing, something that I’m always happy to share when it’s useful.
17 June: Innovative Approaches to ‘Psychosis’ @ I.A.N.
Last time we travelled to Belgrade it was noticeable that we had no qualified mental health professionals attending our training workshops. Whilst this gave psychiatric survivors the opportunity to share openly, it was a gap we were keen to address to support the network’s development. So, this time we convened a workshop specifically intended to appeal to mental health professionals – introducing some innovative approaches to working with people diagnosed with a form of ‘psychosis’ (“The Maastricht Approach”, “Voice Dialogue”, “Peer Support” & “Open Dialogue”). Happily, the workshop sold out completely – welcoming a range of psychiatrists, psychotherapists, psychologists and nurses from psychiatric insinuations in and around Belgrade. Despite the challenges of translations, the day resulted in some really helpful discussions where one psychiatrist disclosed, in the final moments, how he had learnt more than he had anticipated during the workshop. Another told us they she would refer a relative to our approach should they struggle with voices (a good sign!).
Last year, Adi Hasenbasic (Metanoia) appeared via Skype on Day 2 of our Belgrade course. Having heard him briefly over the internet, it was amazing to meet Adi in person (along with the wonderful people of Metanoia).
19 June: Film Screening & Discussion
Adi invited Dirk, Slobodanka and myself to a public screening of the Horizon Documentary (aired in the mid-90s) on the Hearing Voices Movement. He hoped to show people that the Hearing Voices Movement in the UK started from similarly inhospitable roots and, as I watched the film, I was stunned at how far we had come. The film showed some of the key pioneers (Patsy, Marius, Sandra, Ron and Alan) along with supporters (Phil Thomas and Richard Bentall). Interestingly it contrasted the ‘hearing voices’ approach with mainstream psychiatry of the era. We then had a discussion about the approach and its relevance here that lasted well beyond its allotted time.
This half day workshop welcomed around 25 people to hear about the international Hearing Voices Movement (including some of its basic principles and how it has developed in different countries). Attendees brought with them a range of personal and professional expertise and were open to trying to understand what it might be like for someone to hear voices and how peer support groups may be useful here. We screened the ‘Voices Matter’ film created during the World Hearing Voices Congress in Wales, and explored how far the movement has come in 25 years. We split into three groups looking at overcoming three main challenges to developing a local group/network – reaching out to voice-hearers in a stigmatised environment; changing perceptions of the general public to voice-hearing; reaching out to professionals in mainstream institutions. Finally, Adi shared the plans for a West Balkan Hearing Voices Network discussed earlier in the day with representatives from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Slovenia.
21 June: Innovative Approaches to ‘Psychosis’
Finally, on Saturday, we spent the day with a range of people from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia & Slovenia to explore four different approaches to supporting people struggling with ‘psychosis’. Whilst themes echoed those of the Belgrade workshop, that most participants were part of an NGO gave the session a distinctly different feel. Attendees were already familiar with the basics of the Hearing Voices Movement and seemed hungry for specifics that they could implement in their work. In the feedback section of the day, one of the stand out comments for me was someone recognising that voice-hearing is dimensional and that this approach goes way beyond limited definitions of ‘hearing voices’. It’s impossible to talk about those people who hear voices as, if we look inside, we all have some ‘voices’ within us (whether we hear them or not).
We left the week feeling exhausted, but energised. It certainly feels like things are moving in this area and we’re keen to support the emerging network as it grows. I’m hoping to return to the area to do training for group facilitators, as well as to reach out to more professionals in the institutions over there. This is a great start, but there is a huge challenge ahead and I’m glad we have such fantastic allies to carry it forward.
For more information on the Hearing Voices Movement, see: www.intervoiceonline.org