Connecting People and Ideas in the Hearing Voices Movement

On 9 July almost 60 people from a range of organisations from across the country met together at Mind in Camden’s Voices: Unlocked conference to explore ways we can better support people who hear voices in prison and secure forensic services. Bringing together people from prisons, secure units, NHS, government and the voluntary sector, the conference covered the following important themes:

  • Supporting people who hear violent voices, that either tell them to hurt themselves or others
  • Working with trauma and self harm
  • Ways of equipping prison officers with the empathy
  • Understanding and tools they need to support people in distress
  • The potential of peer support to effect transformation
  • Pathways, and blocks, to recovery

Rachel Waddingham, project manager, describes the event below:

“A recent report from the Ministry of Justice (UK)  suggests that 25% of women, and 15% of men, in prison report symptoms ‘indicative of psychosis’ (including hearing voices or seeing visions). Given the prevalence of these experiences, it seems strange that until the launch of our Hearing Voices: Prisons & Secure Units project, prisons were one of the few places that hadn’t yet taken on Hearing Voices Groups as a method of support.

I’m happy to say that, following the launch of our project in 2010, that has changed. There are now 5 Hearing Voices Groups in London’s prisons (HMP Holloway, HMP Wandsworth, HMP Bronzefield and HMP Pentonville). This covers both male and female prisons, and we’re now working to bring groups to prisons outside of London and within youth offending institutions (for teenagers).

You can find out more about these groups by watching our short film, below.

Voices: Unlocked gave us an excellent opportunity to showcase what has been happening in London’s prisons to support people who hear voices over the last few years – looking at what has worked, as well as what needs to be done to move things further. As the statistics above show, the level of need in prisons is massive – we are not resting on our laurels, there’s still so much to do.

The day launched with Jacqui Dillon (chair of the English Hearing Voices Network) explore ‘violent voices’. She shared her experiences of developing a Hearing Voices Group within Rampton (a High Secure Forensic Unit) and the importance of providing safe spaces for people to talk about taboo experiences, rather than acting on them. Whilst people can often fear people talking about these violent voices, Jacqui made the point that if we don’t talk about them, there is little we can do to understand them.

Given that Hearing Voices in Prisons is an area of many myths and stereotypes, we invited four speakers to explore – and challenge – three crucial myths.

Myth #1. People in prison are only out for themselves (they won’t engage in peer support)

Kimmett Edgar, from the Prison Reform Trust, shared his experiences of conducting research into peer support initiatives in prisons. He shared the stories of people who have engaged in peer support, alongside the kinds of environments and staff attitudes that seem to facilitate this. The message felt very clear to me – people can, and do, help each other in prison (even when the environment itself can make this a challenge).

Myth #2. Prison officers don’t care/can’t help

Sharron Withers (HMP Holloway) and Paul Nurden (HMP Pentonville) are both officers who have been trained as group facilitators. They shared their personal experience of becoming an officer, dealing with people who are struggling with voices and then training as group faciltiators. Sharron shared how she felt the officer training doesn’t really prepare you for dealing with the intensity of people’s distress, and that her gut instinct (to engage with the person’s experience) was quickly dismissed as ‘naive’ and ill advised. Whilst she was talking, I was really struck by the intensity of the experiences she faces day in day out (and – obviously – the intensity of the distress people face when struggling in prison). Sharron spoke about how coming on to our training helped her validate her gut instinct and give her the tools and confidence to support people.

Paul told a very different story. From initially believing that voices were just someone’s way of getting attention or extra privileges, and reacting accordingly, Paul explained how coming on Hearing Voices Group Facilitation Training (albeit reluctantly) changed his worldview completely. He described how hearing mine and Dolly’s personal experiences blew his mind – he explained how hearing two people share their experiences without any personal gain helped him listen and believe in the reality of the voices. He spoke about the challenges of going back into the prison where many officers still don’t take voice-hearers seriously and make jokes, recognising that he was once one of those officers. It was clear from both of the talks that the need for training is huge within prisons. It seems like officers are the first line of support for people in distress in prisons, and yet they are also the ones least likely to get comprehensive and practical training to back this up.

Myth #3. Hope is unrealistic – some people just won’t recover.

Dolly Sen (film maker, author and survivor) shared her experiences of being given up on, her recovery journey and her experiences of working alongside others who have been labelled and left. In particular, she described making links with people who had been seen as being ‘difficult to engage’ through the power of human interaction, respect and being ‘Dolly’. The power of ‘cake’ was evident (taking the scenic route when working with someone who has had lots of people give up on them in the past and/or want something from them). Dolly left me with the strong feeling that people often give up on themselves when others give up on them – and that we need to hold on to hope no matter who we’re working with. Equally, though, we should not be so naive to think that people will want to talk with us or work with us just because we believe they can get through their current difficulties. This is no bad thing – I like the idea of ‘why would they’ talk with me, not ‘why won’t they?’.

Catherine Whitaker, development worker, shared our Voices: Unlocked film – where we got to hear from facilitators and group members about the value of Hearing Voices Groups in prison. I then shared my experience of developing the project and working in London’s prisons – pulling out the things I think we’ve learnt and the challenges that still lay ahead (including funding the next year of our work!).

After a welcome lunch break, our afternoon featured a range of workshops to engage people in thinking and talking about the issues raised throughout the morning.

These workshops included: Stories of recovery (Dolly Sen, Flo Bellamy and Kareem Reynolds); Rethinking paranoia (Dr Dave Harper and Molly Carroll); A straight talking guide to dealing with voices & visions (myself and Sharron Withers); Taking mental health to the streets (Olive Mahony and Elena from MAC-UK); Setting up Hearing Voices Groups in Prisons & Secure Settings (Catherine Whitaker and facilitators from HMP Holloway, Wandsworth & Pentonville); Working with voices, trauma & self harm (Flo Bellamy and Rachel Waddingham).

A massive thank you to everyone who came and supported the day. The speakers and presenters were fantastic and the feedback we’ve had since the event has been really exceptional. We are now working with a prison outside of London (in the Midlands) to develop another group and are still seeking funding to carry on this work from 2014. I left this conference feeling truly excited and inspired. I’m looking forward to Voices: Unlocked 2014 now!”


Voices: Unlocked Conference Program

Voices: Unlocked Booklet: Developing peer support groups in prisons and secure settings

For more information, see:

Intervoice was set up to support the International Hearing Voices Movement, celebrating the diversity and creativity within it. We do what we can to share information and connect people with groups, networks and resources.

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World Hearing Voices Day Postcard