An interlude with madness

April 07, 2008

What is it like to hear voices in your head? The students taking the Capstone course “Madness,” led by Psychology Lecturer Paul Mazeroff, will tell you it’s disturbing.

“It was hard because the voices were so distracting,” says Kellen Krajewski ’09. “It was hard to focus.”

The students took part in an auditory hallucination simulation March 26 in which they listened to voices on portable headphones. Both male and female voices whispered and yelled and provided a running commentary on what students were doing wrong.

Then, students were directed to take part in tasks that included filing a job application, counting backwards, completing a word find and answering simple current events questions. Many of them failed.

“A lot of the things the voices said were negative, and that’s when I made the most mistakes,” said Alexandra Neiman ’08.

Anyone can hear voices, according to Dr. Pat Deegan, a psychiatric survivor and co-founder of the Boston University Institute for the Study of Human Resilience. They can be triggered by bereavement, sensory deprivation, solitary confinement, and a host of other causes. Deegan says that those suffering from distressing voices are frequently scared to talk about it, because the voices are saying humiliating things. Ultimately, she says that sufferers are grabbed viscerally by the voices and compelled to respond.

“My voices kept telling me not to do what the exercise directed me to do,” said Andrea Reca ’08. “So I found myself talking back to them inside my head. It was hard to track what I was saying. I kept wondering, ‘Did I say that or think that?’”

The workshop, put on by the Adams Hanover Counseling Services, was intended to show how difficult it is to negotiate the world with this type of mental health disorder. Peer specialist Nicole Darr says she hopes students will come away with a sense of heightened compassion for those who hear distressing voices.

“We want you to think about what kind of mental health worker you’ll be if you go into the field,” Darr told the group.

Adams Hanover Counseling Services frequently leads voices workshops for first responders in order to prepare them for situations in which they would encounter patients with mental health issues.