Peer-led Group Therapy & Sense of Community Help Ease Schizophrenics’ Pain
Written by: Suzanne Jacobs
According to pop culture, schizophrenics are sad and often frightening characters doomed to live in isolation with their paranoia and disembodied voices for the rest of their lives. Sure, some movies like A Beautiful Mind do more than just stereotype their schizophrenic characters as nut jobs, but they’re the exceptions. Along with most other mental health issues — depression, bi-polar disorder and post traumatic stress disorder, for example — schizophrenia has fallen victim to stigma through society’s attempt to simplify what it doesn’t understand. Such stigma has improved over the years through education and awareness, but we still have a ways to go before scientists figure out exactly what’s going on up there.
In the meantime, perhaps letting schizophrenic patients comfort and help each other can give them something their doctors and therapists can’t — empathy and simple understanding. That’s what Gail Hornstein, a psychology professor at Mount Holyoke College, had in mind when she brought the Hearing Voices Network to the United States. The HVN is an international organization that gives people who hear voices a way to talk freely about their experiences with others who understand.
“In psychiatric hospitals they’ve had cameras watching them or been viewed from behind one-way mirrors. When patients started their own groups, they decided that no one who isn’t a part of the group should attend. The last thing I wanted to do was violate their rules, so I agreed not to take notes, and to talk about my own experience just as other people in the group do. Though I don’t hear voices, I have certainly had experiences of vulnerability or isolation…I answer questions in the group, because I know a lot about psychology…but I am not an authority or leader. In HVN’s view each person is an expert on his or her own experience.”
A World Health Organization study surprisingly revealed that schizophrenic patients in developed countries like the U.S. showed less improvement over time than patients in developing countries like Colombia, Nigeria and India. According to Hornstein, two possible explanations for these findings are that a) developing nations can’t afford to medicate their patients so the patients don’t become chronically disabled, and b) patients in developing countries are more likely to be cared for at home and out of isolation. Both of these hypotheses could explain why peer-led therapies are helpful.
The sessions don’t cure patients, but they help a lot of them “feel less terrorized” by the voices they hear, Hornstein said. There’s an unfortunate skepticism in the world of psychiatry that mentally ill patients can ever get better, she added, but that’s only because scientists have yet to figure out how to effectively treat these illnesses.
“Every approach that has ever been developed in the history of psychiatry — medication, shock treatment, hospitalization, surgery, psychotherapy, peer support groups — has worked for some people and not for others. The problem is, it’s impossible to predict in advance which remedy will be effective for a particular person. What we need is more flexibility and more options.”
Psychiatric drugs work for only about one third of the people who take them, Hornstein said. Another third of the group say the drugs don’t work, and the last third report that the drugs affect them but not in the desired way (by just knocking them out, for example).
In my opinion, neuroscience is one of the most exciting areas of research right now. Our brains define who we are and yet remain a huge mystery to us. Unfortunately, that mystery is responsible for a big gray area in healthcare and a lot of stigma toward mental health patients. I can’t even come close to understanding what it feels like to hear voices, but I do know that if I’m dealing with something that leaves me in emotional shambles, nothing helps more than talking to someone who’s been there, so I’m all in favor of these peer-led therapy sessions. Hornstein’s interview with The Sun is definitely worth a read. She delves deeper into the benefits of these sessions and discusses how pharmaceutical companies are messing with mental health.