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National Empowerment Center - Articles

Kennedy Center staff learns about hallucinations

Amanda Cuda, www.connpost.com - 05/11/2008

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This article was published by the Connecticut Post's online service.  It is available to view at www.connpost.com/localnews/ci_9228316 (As of 5/13/2008) where you will also find photos of the Hearing Voices workshop.

Click to sample a sound byte from the CD
that simulates the voice hearing experience.

Cara O'Rourke found it hard to concentrate.

As she sat in a room at the Kennedy Center's Lindeman Drive office in Trumbull last week, she did her best to answer the questions posed to her by Marguerite Kinsella, a counselor with the center, which provides services to children and adults with disabilities.

Kinsella's queries were pretty simple: What day of the week is it? What's the date? What year is it?

For a while, O'Rourke did pretty well. She hesitated here and there, but was mostly able to spit the answers out: Wednesday. May 7. 2008.

But, as the inquiry went on, O'Rourke faltered. She couldn't name the last four U.S. presidents. She couldn't explain the meaning of the common expression, "a rolling stone gathers no moss."

She had trouble remembering and repeating words and numbers that Kinsella recited to her.

It's not that O'Rourke didn't know this information or has a poor memory.

It's just that she couldn't concentrate. The voices were distracting her.

O'Rourke, counseling services coordinator at the Kennedy Center, was one of many center employees who participated in "Hearing Voices," a workshop designed to show the center's staff what life is like for someone with auditory hallucinations.

Participants in the Kennedy Center workshop had to listen to a CD that simulated what it's like to hear voices. Then they had to accomplish a series of tasks, such as reading a newspaper story, using matchsticks to create specific designs and answering Kinsella's relatively simple questions — all with the "voices" buzzing in their ears.

May is Mental Health Month, and auditory hallucinations occur in several forms of mental illness, including schizophrenia. Those who are manic, depressed or even grieving the sudden loss of someone close to them can also hear voices.

Kinsella said that, for those who have these hallucinations, simple activities can be difficult. "These individuals with chronic mental illness experience this on a daily basis," she said. "It's a challenge that they have to overcome to live productive lives."

Those served through the Kennedy Center include people with mental illness, and the training exercise aimed to give the center's staff a clearer idea of what some of their clients go through.

The CDs used in the training were created by the National Empowerment Center, a Massachusetts-based agency that provides services for mental health professionals and those with mental illness. The Empowerment Center's director of training, Patricia Deegan, developed the CDs. Deegan herself has heard voices since she was a teenager, and now uses her experience to educate others.

The voices on the recording ranged from whispers and unintelligible gibberish to full sentences.

For many Kennedy Center staff members, including O'Rourke, the experience was unsettling. "It was very interesting and definitely challenging," she said.

She admitted that she had a tough time with Kinsella's questions. "It was difficult trying to process what was being said through what I was hearing."

Rose Jackson, Kennedy Center residential manager, agreed. Often, she said, the voices shouted negative and abusive things, such as "you're nothing" and "you smell."

"It was very disturbing listening to those voices over and over again," Jackson said.

After the participants finished the training, they took part in a roundtable discussion led by Martha Aigner, coordinator of support education for the Kennedy Center's mental health department.

The employees were asked to describe how they felt during the simulation. Some reported feeling anxious, frustrated and being emotionally and physically drained from the experience.

Aigner said that all of those reactions were common, but pointed out that the employees only "hallucinated" for a couple of hours. "We have clients who hear voices 24 hours a day, every day," she said.

Those who have a mental illness that involves hallucinations can't just a flip a switch and get rid of them, she said. Even with treatment and medication, Aigner said, the symptoms lessen, but they don't disappear completely. Thus, these people have to develop strategies for coping with their disability.

Jackson, for one, said the experience gave her a new perspective on what life is like for someone who hears voices. One of the clients she works with has hallucinations, Jackson said, so she knew something about them before the exercise. But experiencing it firsthand cast the situation in a new light.

"It's truly amazing what these individuals go through," she said.

The Kennedy Center's office at 2440 Reservoir Ave., Trumbull, CT will host another "Hearing Voices" event from 1 to 4 p.m. Wednesday (May 14, 2008). The event is open to the public.