Over the course of the next few days, I’ll be sharing four parts of an elaboration on an assignment that I recently completed for my Mental Health class. This assignment served as a simulation of the type of distressing voices that a person with a mental illness such as schizophrenia may experience (keyword being simulation, as nothing can really re-create how a person with a psychiatric illness may actually experience it).
Prior to the simulation, we viewed an hour long preparatory video lecture given by a woman with a PhD in Clinical Psychology. She spoke about schizophrenia and hearing voices that are distressing (which is different, she argues, than simply hearing voices), and her words carried weight because she knew what she was talking about. When she was a child, she was diagnosed with schizophrenia.
Just as students in Physical Disabilities classes may engage in a 24-hour wheelchair assignment in order to gain perspective and empathy, this assignment was meant to immerse us in 45 minutes of an experience that we will not soon forget. It was not meant to make us able to fully understand what it’s like to have schizophrenia, or to hear voices that are distressing. No class assignment can do that. But it was meant to give us a perspective that we can carry with us into our professional lives as occupational therapists, whose goal it is to help people increase their participation and successes in their occupations of everyday life.
After we viewed the video introduction, we received an explanation about what exactly we were going to be doing over the course of the 45-minute simulation. We were told that we would move through four experiential stations. Each station was meant to give us a glimpse into the system that a person who hears distressing voices may go through, and the stigma that he or she may experience on a daily basis. These were our stations:
1. Problem solving with the “supervisor”
2. A visit with the “psychologist”
3. A visit with the “psychiatrist”
4. A community “outing”
I admit that I was nervous heading into this simulation. I can be easily freaked out. I was afraid that I would have nightmares that night (which I didn’t). I know many of my classmates felt the same way. I was put at ease by the fact that this entire simulation was something that was very well put together and that was meant to be experienced as a whole, and not just as a press play on your CD player (yep, CD player) and deal with it on your own. It was all part of a program, with extensive preparation prior to and debriefing following the simulation. I could tell that the creator of the simulation (the woman whose lecture we watched), as well as our teaching staff, cared about helping us have the most positive and beneficial experience possible.
The following is my reflection on my experience at the first station:
My first task while hearing voices was to engage in the match problem solving activity. I guessed that I would become engrossed in the task and be able to tune out the voices. I was wrong. I could not complete the first puzzle and I was unable to tune out the ambiguous whispers that were already haunting me. They reminded me of the creepy whispers on the TV show LOST. I felt paranoid and ashamed each and every time the supervisor walked by, noticing that I was staring blankly at the matches in front of me. I was sure that she thought the voices were preventing me from concentrating. I even said to her, “I’m not good at this,” just so that I could try and explain myself. I wanted to make sure she knew it was not because of the voices. My sense of self was already being affected, as I attempted to separate “the real me” from “the pretend me.” I probably would have performed just as poorly had I not been hearing the voices, but their presence did not make the task any easier. I was relieved when, after a few minutes, we were told to move to the next station.