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The Hearing Voices On-line Group is the first group of its kind in the world. It started in January of 2017 after Caroline White of the Western Mass RLC (currently serving as the Hearing Voices Research and Development Fund Training Coordinator) decided she just couldn’t take anymore requests for support from people in remote areas across the country and not be able to offer them something. She partnered with Jeannie Bass (a Board Member with Hearing Voices USA), and together they designed a twice-monthly on-line gathering point for anyone who lives in an area where in-person groups aren’t accessible. The groups afford participants the opportunity to log in either by phone or webcam, and meet twice monthly on Wednesday evenings. The on-line groups are based on the Hearing Voices approach. This approach (growing out of the Hearing Voices Movement that got its start in Europe) does not assume illness or that the goal needs to be to stop people from hearing voices. Instead, it focuses on sharing experiences, supporting people to make meaning, and just being present to hear one another out on a topic that is still often so taboo that it’s difficult to speak to elsewhere.
Caroline and others have been working hard to offer trainings and help groups develop across the country. Several articles have been published about their work (For example, see Foreign Policy: http://foreignpolicy.com/2017/01/16/listen-to-the-voices-in-your-head/ and New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/09/health/psychiatrist-holistic-mental-health.html?_r=0) While that effort has been highly successful, there are still many areas in most states where there simply isn’t anything available. Starting an on-line group seemed an obvious step, though not one anyone else had taken the initiative to make happen as of yet. Since the group started just over a year ago, Caroline has fielded dozens of calls and e-mails from eager potential participants from both in and out of the country. Many of these calls have been from family members who aren’t able to attend the group directly. This has prompted Caroline to also begin to offer a monthly ‘Ask a Voice Hearer’ on-line group which will begin in the coming months.
In November of 2016, Caroline accepted an international Hearing Voices award at the 8th annual World Hearing Voices Congress in Paris, France on behalf of the Western Mass RLC and all the work they’ve done to support the spread of the Hearing Voices approach in the United States. The on-line group is just the latest example of that, but it is also the most innovative. News of the first on-line Hearing Voices group in the world has spread across social media with Facebook as the primary ‘home base’ for sharing each time the group is coming up. Caroline and Jeannie also plan to share the progress and success of the group at the upcoming 9th Annual World Hearing Voices Congress which is slated for August, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Jeannie, as a Board member for Hearing Voices USA, is also a leader in planning the conference.)
Hearing Voices on-line groups are not expensive to sustain. With paid facilitators, they cost about $85 per group and around $350 per month for a group that runs weekly (or around $170 per month, if bi-weekly). Although there can be some cost for the on-line web conferencing access, the group was able to obtain access through an ‘in kind’ donation. Based on need and demand, there is hope to add additional groups in the future. Although this group is not the result of any organizational partnership, the joint efforts of an RLC employee and a Hearing Voices USA Board Member does exemplify that there are multiple people and groups invested in seeing the spread of the Hearing Voices approach and the increased availability of related supports. This group has not only sustained, but expanded from bi-weekly to weekly.
Although highly innovative and breaking completely new ground, replication is also extraordinarily simple. As do groups occur on-line, so can training to operate on-line groups (for individuals who already have an overall understanding and readiness to facilitate Hearing Voices groups in general) happen via the same method. Additionally, Caroline already offers monthly phone-in facilitator support calls that would be available to support new on-line group facilitators. To start a new on-line group only takes access to the web conferencing software, two facilitators (who may even be willing to volunteer some of their time to get things rolling), and support to ensure they are ready to facilitate a group that is fully in sync with the Hearing Voices USA charter (http://www.hearingvoicesusa.org/hvn-usa-charter). A group in Connecticut has already replicated our efforts with a second on-line group available on a different day of the week.
The group has been highly utilized and already resulted in connection with more than 25 voice hearers in its first handful of meetings. The groups have also been unusually diverse, including people of varying ages, veterans, transgender folks and others who identify on the LGBTQQIA* spectrum, and beyond. Most have never before had access to a Hearing Voices group. Although it’s too soon to offer long-term outcomes, participants have already reported an increased sense of connection and belonging, and reduced fear or sense of aloneness. We also know – from in-person Hearing Voices research and reports, that groups routinely support people to make meaning of their experiences, to learn creative strategies for navigating life while hearing voices, and to learn how to integrate the experience of voice hearing into a full life. There is no reason to believe that the on-line group will not have the same sort of impact.