A new workshop that uses immersive experiences is giving Riverland mental health workers a better understanding of patients who ‘hear voices’, or have auditory hallucinations.

Key points:

  • A program, using people with lived experience of hearing voices, is training regional health workers
  • The program involves participants completing tasks while listening to sounds through headphones 
  • The sector hopes such programs will help boost health worker numbers in regional Australia 

Led by the University of SA’s Department of Rural Health, the workshop Hearing Distressing Voices is designed with lived experience at the forefront.

The workshop simulates the experience of voice hearers — people who perceive sounds without any auditory stimulus — by giving staff activities to carry out while wearing headphones that are playing voices.

Michael Marsh, a voice hearer who works with the Integrated Mental Health Inpatient Unit in Whyalla, co-facilitated a two-day workshop at the Riverland General Hospital in Berri and used his experience to guide the sessions.

“[There was one task] with a matchbox where we needed to follow some instructions … another part where you had to read some dialogue, and another one was when you had to be interviewed by the doctor, all while the simulation was playing,” he said.

A hospital staff member listens to voices through headphones while carrying out activities. (Supplied: Riverland General Hospital)

What it’s like to hear voices

Mental health nurse Carol-Ann Stanborough also co-facilitated the workshop and is passionate about increasing mental health education among health workers.

She said between five and 28 per cent of the general population experienced voice hearing or auditory hallucination at some point in their lives.

“About 75 per cent of those people are not diagnosed with a mental illness, so it’s a small percentage where the voice hearing is also part of a diagnosis like schizophrenia or some other mental illness,” Ms Stanborough said.

Mental health academic Lee Martinez works with the Department of Rural Health and also co-facilitated the workshop in the Riverland.

“Trying to grow our own is to encourage young people or people who live rurally to take up the profession of working in mental health, so we’re always trying to make it a really positive experience.”

Michael Marsh (left) says not all the voices he hears are distressing.(Supplied: Riverland General Hospital)

The training was presented as an opportunity to raise awareness among staff during Mental Health Month.

The program travels across regional areas of South Australia to bring mental health education to the rural workforce and students who are on placement.

“It gives the participants a chance to ask questions that they may not ask in the general setting, and I’m quite happy to share my voice hearing experience,” Mr Marsh said.

“What we say is imagine having that 24 hours a day,” he said.

Mental health workers say workshops using lived experiences are key to improving treatment in regional areas. (Supplied: Riverland General Hospital)

More regional staff needed

One of the biggest challenges facing the regional health sector is the recruitment and retention of qualified staff.

Ms Stanborough said immersive and informed training sessions like the Hearing Distressing Voices workshop allowed mental health workers to better relate to patients.

“So understanding that then is going to contribute to the worker being able to be in their shoes and hopefully bring that insight into all their interactions.”

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