Portland Hearing Voices brings mental diversity to POSH

By Jenny Westberg, Portland Mental Health Examiner, April 8, 2012

Studies show 2 to 10 percent of persons voice-hearers, including many with no psychiatric illness.  (Image: Flickr.com/Jungmoon)

Studies show 2 to 10 percent of persons voice-hearers, including many with no psychiatric illness. (Image: Flickr.com/Jungmoon)

As Portland Hearing Voices nears its third anniversary, the peer-run community group is growing fast and more active than ever.

In January, director Will Hall trained seven new co-facilitators, enabling  the popular, often-packed Voices, Visions and Extreme States group to start meeting weekly; a support group for women survivors of sexual trauma started in March;  additional Voices and Visions groups are in the works, reaching throughout the city and beyond; and other ventures are taking shape.

It’s an exciting time for an organization that has exceeded all expectations since its beginning in 2009.  This upstart group of outsiders, whose very existence challenges accepted psychiatric wisdom, who champion “mental diversity” and welcome those at the extreme edge of reason, should by all rights have been a flash in the pan.  Yet Portland Hearing Voices has somehow persisted, growing in size and influence, quietly changing the world.

But if it’s surprising that Portland Hearing Voices got started at all, and more surprising they’re still around and flourishing, it was stunning when recently the group took its message of mental diversity inside the locked doors of the Portland campus of the Oregon State Hospital.

The local campus of OSH, known as “POSH,” is located in Northeast Portland at the site of the former Holladay Park Hospital.  Patients at POSH have been civilly committed or voluntarily committed by a guardian.  According to the Oregon State Hospital website, patients’ days are filled with skill-building, educational and therapeutic groups designed to prepare them for a successful transition back into the community.   On March 12, they had the opportunity to hear about a different approach to group support.

Thanks to an invitation by POSH peer recovery specialist Scott Snedecor, the morning of the 12th, Hall and four PHV co-facilitators met at the hospital to speak to a group that included patients, social workers, an occupational therapist, and a couple of very interested psychiatrists.

One of the presenters was Chaya Grossberg, a community organizer for the Mental Health Association of Portland who has been involved in Hearing Voices groups outside of Portland for approximately 10 years.  She described the visit to POSH:

“Kate, CJ, Nicole, Will and I moved the chairs into a circle.  We sat and introduced ourselves to the staff members and patients who were there, and then each of the co-facilitators talked about our experiences in Portland Hearing Voices, and shared some of our personal  stories.  Then we opened it up into a wider discussion.

“We talked a lot about how Portland Hearing Voices is peer-run, so that everyone who’s a co-facilitator also has personal experience [with voices or extreme states].  We talked about the value of that, and how it helps people feel safe to share – there’s no professional sitting there writing down what we say.”

Grossberg said it’s the presenters’ hope that POSH staff might refer patients to Portland Hearing Voices groups when they leave.   But a main goal was simply to introduce attendees to a different perspective on mental health and support.  While some people find mainstream approaches very helpful, she said, not all do.

Grossberg added that she values Portland Hearing Voices because “everyone is on an equal plane.  There aren’t any experts.   Peer support is really important to me, and one reason is the friendships I’ve made.   Also there’s a sense of being part of a larger movement, moving away from classifying people ‘crazy’ or ‘sane,’ ‘normal’ or ‘abnormal.’

“I really feel passionate about the movement toward democratizing mental health, and moving closer to true mental diversity.”

Hall said the visit was a success.  “One of our priorities is building bridges to reach people unhappy with their mental health treatment and professionals looking for ways to change.  It’s great to see so much interest in Portland, even at a locked inpatient facility.”

For Portland Hearing Voices, it was just one more daunting hurdle to leap over with ease.   It’s impossible to know what the next years hold for PHV, but based on the last three, it should be surprising — and just might change history.

Find out more about Portland Hearing Voices at PortlandHearingVoices.net (for support group information, click “Upcoming Events,”  then “Ongoing Groups”).   You can also call 413-210-2803, or email portlandhearingvoices@gmail.com.