Demand is growing in Winnipeg for a workshop that helps people understand what it's like to live with a mental illness like schizophrenia.

Hearing Voices That Are Distressing, a workshop offered by the Manitoba Schizophrenia Society, is booked solid at least until the end of June.

Participants in a Hearing Voices seminar wear headphones and hear recordings of voices — from whispers to shouts — while trying to carry out various tasks.

Hearing Voices workshop

People taking part in the Hearing Voices workshop hear recordings of voices through headphones connected to portable audio players. The participants cannot take off the headsets or adjust the volume of the voices while performing various tasks, such as filling out a test or form. (CBC)

The participants cannot take off the headsets or adjust the volume while performing the tasks, which include stapling papers together, completing math problems, plugging parking meters and running simple errands.

"It was quite frightening at first because it was loud and it was really distracting," said Crystal Vandal, one of dozens of nursing students from the University of Manitoba who recently took the workshop in Winnipeg.

"The voices got louder, so it was a voice actually saying things to me that were like swear words and saying very, like, demeaning things."

For Vandal's exercise, she received directions to walk to a neighbouring mall and find a brochure at a City of Winnipeg office, all while hearing the voices in her headphones.

"Hearing the voices and walking, and people were looking at me, I almost thought, like, could they hear what I'm hearing?" she said.

"You're almost looking at people like you feel kind of embarrassed but … you're the only one hearing it."

Accurate portrayal

The voice simulation in the workshop is an accurate portrayal of what someone who hears voices lives with every day, said Jane Burpee, the schizophrenia society's public education co-ordinator.

"It's just to show people that you were trying to do these jobs — you were trying to write O Canada, you were trying to, you know, staple things and put things together — but with the brain working the way it is for you right now, with those voices, it was extremely difficult," she said.

Crystal Vandal

Crystal Vandal, a nursing student at the University of Manitoba, tries to run an errand while hearing the voice simulation in her headphones during a recent Hearing Voices workshop in Winnipeg. (CBC)

"Therefore, let's just give some compassion and understanding."

Sherri Matsumoto, who has been living with symptoms of schizophrenia for about 30 years, said the voice simulation is similar to what she hears every day.

"It's similar to mine, but mine are mostly voices," she said. "I don't hear a lot of, like, murmurs or muttering or noises. Mine is mostly male and female voices that are actually talking. It's clear voices."

Matsumoto said her voices are under control thanks to medication and she helps others these days in her work as a counsellor with the schizophrenia society.

Offering a new perspective

The Hearing Voices workshop is being offered to health-care workers, paramedics, police officers, employers and even to family members of those with schizophrenia who want to learn more about it.

The course was designed by Pat Deegan, a U.S.-based psychologist and researcher who was diagnosed with schizophrenia as a teenager.

The Manitoba Schizophrenia Society says it's been getting more calls about the workshop through word of mouth from employers and post-secondary schools, and it's happy with the response from those who have taken the seminars.

Burpee said the aim of the seminars is to give people a new perspective on mental illness and the stigma that often comes with it.

"We're not judging any system or anything. It could be in a Safeway lineup and the person is taking so long and I got a busy day … and we get frustrated and then we kind of have a presumption of who this person is," she said.

Vandal said she will apply what she has learned in the Hearing Voices workshop when she becomes a nurse, as she now has an understanding of what people with schizophrenia go through.

"It was very different than what I expected," she said.

"I thought that it was really eye-opening to see what it's like for someone that hears voices, rather than hearing about it or reading about it in a textbook."

With files from the CBC's Nelly Gonzalez