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App Helps Young People In Distress

New Zealand architecture and design graduate Sarah Moktar is using her skills in technology and industrial innovation to explore one of the more severe and less understood experiences of mental distress - hearing voices.

Sarah was inspired and motivated by her older sister’s diagnosis of schizophrenia, and a hearing voices workshop the whole family did together 11 years ago. She decided to develop a device that could be used in everyday environments for a more accurate experience of hearing voices.

Known as Empathear, it essentially simulates auditory hallucinations and provides family and friends an opportunity to experience their own reaction to hearing voices.  Seeing how their own behaviour might be affected, allows people to better understand the daily challenges their family members face – and their reactions.

Supported by a 2013 Changing Minds Mental Blocks grant, Empathear was initially launched as a wearable scarf with speakers.

“Thanks to additional funding from Supporting Families in Mental Illness (SFMI), Empathear has morphed into an interactive app for smart phones and tablets that can be used by multiple people at the same time,” Sarah says.

Testing the reactions

As part of her Masters’ thesis, Sarah fine-tuned Empathear by having four participants from Nelson consent to test the app. All were siblings of someone who hears voices. They were free to use it as they wished, but were urged to discontinue use if they felt overwhelmed and distressed.

Sarah says all participants were enthusiastic about the app and tailored their experience to their level of comfort by choosing the gender of the voices – one, two or all of the genders - and the mood of the voices - angry, happy, passive or teasing.

“Some spread their experience over a couple of days by plugging their headphones in and listening to the app for an hour or so each time, and others progressively adapted to the voices during one session,” she says.

Their feedback emphasised the most difficult activities were concentrating, talking to people (the voices were incredibly distracting when people were interacting with others), and responding appropriately while the voices were constantly competing for their attention.

Everyone reported a shift in empathy for their affected brother or sister and the experience left them with positive feelings about family bonding.

More insight leads to greater understanding

“There is no doubt Empathear allows people to gain greater insight,” Sarah says. “In my own life, I understand and respect my sister better. I have more patience and feel we are closer because of it. We know that regardless of what happens, we will always be there for each other.”

Now based in London, Sarah hopes that when Empathear is released in 2016, it will give people a close-to-accurate experience of hearing voices.

She believes that apps such as Empathear, and other new technologies, offer a unique way of breaking down the barriers and misconceptions surrounding mental illness.

“After all, in many other areas of people’s lives being different is something to be celebrated!” she says.

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