Student gives voice to schizophrenica sufferers

Last updated 05:00 05/04/2014

Sarah Mokhtar has spent the last year developing a downloadable app and wearable technology scarf that allow people to hear voices and understand what that experience is like.

Sarah Mokhtar
INNER VOICES: Sarah Mokhtar has developed technology that allows people to hear what a schizophrenic hears.

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A Wellington student has come up with a unique way to let people inside the often unnerving world of schizophrenia.

Victoria University design student Sarah Mokhtar was inspired by her older sister, who has schizophrenia, to create a downloadable app and hi-tech scarf that helps relatives of schizophrenics experience what hearing voices and other unbidden interior noises is like.

The scarf and app respond to the everyday environment creating a distracting, fractured experience for users relayed through headphones from the scarf's electronic control centre.

The internal voices include a berating angry man, a friendly woman, and a throaty guttural dirge.

To appreciate its full effect, she wore the scarf around Wellington for a day. "It was much more difficult than I anticipated, to the point where I actually avoided conversations with people because I didn't want to have to cope with voices talking to me while trying to communicate normally."

The project has given her renewed appreciation for her sister.

"I want to be more involved in her life now. For me to want more contact with my sister, and have a relationship I felt like I lost, is a significant change."

As part of her masters in design innovation, Mokhtar spent the past year developing the technology. During her research, she identified three types of stigma linked to the illness - self-stigma from the sufferer, family stigma, and wider social stigma.

She zeroed in on family stigma as the "gateway to opening up about the other two".

As a teenager, she attended a workshop where she listened to a simulation of voices heard by a schizophrenic. From there she set out to create an extension of what she had heard, and has now partnered with the Supporting Families in Mental Illness organisation to distribute the technology.

She also hopes the innovation will be integrated into the clinical sphere to give psychologists, psychiatrists, careworkers and other health professionals greater insight.

So far the scarf and app have garnered a positive response from members of the mental-health community, who are especially interested in how it could help with education in schools.

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- The Dominion Post

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