Hearing Voices and Seeing Visions: What to do? In our contemporary world of North America, hearing voices is the only “symptom” that immediately and single-handedly qualifies one for the DSM (Diagnostical and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association) diagnosis of psychosis. We could qualify this as more correctly referring to the acknowledgement of hearing voices to a professional empowered by the State to make diagnoses in a context in which diagnosing occurs. Thus, Moses could not have been psychotic, for no psychologists or relevant State laws existed to diagnose him. A famous quote says, “When we talk to God, it’s called prayer; when God talks to us, it’s called hallucinations.”
Throughout recorded history, people have seen visions and have heard the voices of Angels, Gods, or others. Only recently have these experiences (or the reporting of them) become pathological. With the emergency of modern science and the ascendency of materialism, anything smacking of spirits or of the supernatural is suspicious or pathological. In Arizona, a recent archbishop for the Roman Catholic Church definitively declared that the Virgin Mary is no longer seen. Hundreds of Mexicans didn’t read enough English to disagree with him. Divine communication and contact was sought, cultivated, and treasured until very recently, and is still desired within many indigenous communities.
However, today, many people live on the shadow side of hearing voices and having visions. These people constantly hear berating, deprecatory voices, who won’t leave them alone. These people suffer tremendously. They become unable to function, so much so that relatives or well-meaning friends take them to the emergency department or to the mental health center for help. In another time and place, a traditional healer might be asked to cast out a demon or remove a curse or retrieve the soul that has wandered away, causing the soul to be stuck in spirit world and the body to express its urgent cries for help. Today, the contemporary interpretation centers around people with defective brains that need medication.
In his book, Crazy Like Us: The Americanization of Mental Health,” Ethan Watters writes about the damage to people in Zimbabwe when hearing voices and having visions became medicalized. Prior to that, people were taken to healers who had a consistent explanatory story about spirit contact. Participation of all parties in this story and its prescriptions for enactment often resulted in resolution of the problem, with greater honor coming to the hearer of voices and the deliverer of visions. With the replacement of this idea by the defective brain story, the quality of people’s lives deteriorated and recovery became much less possible. The traditional Zimbabwean explanations included the possibility of recovery and wellness. They also included dignity and respect for the person brought to the healer. The new biomedical stories did not include recovery from defective brain conditions; nor did they fail to stigmatize those whom they described. People were not better off following the Americanization of mind and mental health in Zimbabwe. Future Health (USA), 19th December 2010
Health workers get an earful of hearing voices Confronting mental health staff with the internal voices many psychiatric patients hear was the basis of a workshop hosted by the Southern District Health Board yesterday.
Mental health workers donned earphones equipped with a voice track, listening to it while carrying out errands and tasks in central Dunedin, such as buying things or asking directions. The idea was to give them a taste of what it felt like to hear voices, while trying to cope with life. Workshop presenter Arana Pearson, who attended from Wellington, told attendees the voices that characterised some psychotic illnesses were misunderstood by the public and the medical profession. Otago Daily Times (New Zealand), 8th October 2010
Hearing voices movement: Jacqui Dillon What is it like to hear voices? How do people learn to live with their voices, and are voices sometimes positive and helpful? What is the connection between voices and trauma? Jacqui Dillon, voice hearer and director of the UK Hearing Voices Network, discusses how the movement of people who hear voices is creating self-help alternatives to traditional and often abusive mental health care. Beyond Meds (USA), 4th August 2010
Marilyn Monroe on the couch …. That summer, during the filming of The Misfits, Marilyn had a nervous breakdown and complained of hearing voices, a paranoid state for which Greenson prescribed even stronger doses of barbiturates.‘There were always new doctors willing to help her into oblivion,’ Miller complained.
She was flown back from the set in Nevada and admitted to the Westside Hospital in Los Angeles, her condition described as ‘extreme exhaustion’.
Monroe and Miller divorced in January 1961. The next month Marilyn, back in New York and threatening suicide, was committed by Kris to the Payne Whitney psychiatric clinic.
Curious doctors and nurses would come and peer at her through the window of her cell, as if she were an animal at the zoo.
Once, she ripped off her hospital gown, screaming that she would give them ‘something to really look at’ and threatened to cut her wrist with the glass she smashed when she tried to break down the bathroom door: ‘If you are going to treat me like a nut, I’ll act like a nut,’ she shouted as four orderlies restrained her. The Telegraph (UK), 26th June 2010
How I beat the hell of schizophrenia As a teenager Dani Hopwood heard voices in her head and suffered horrific hallucinations. She describes how, through long years of treatment, and by falling in love, she overcame the ravages of mental illness. Now I help run a group for Jewish Care called Hearing Voices. Plus I am an educator for Jewish Care’s schools’ programme which aims to break down the stigma surrounding mental health problems.
I still hear voices but now I see them as an extension of my personality. Plus I have developed coping strategies, like if I am out and talking to them I speak into my mobile phone to hide what I am doing. I’ll always be on medication and will continue to see my psychotherapist but my life is so different now.
On reflection I can see that my problems began when I was four and my mum died. My dad hadn’t been well either and I was sent to live with another family who would later adopt me. Although my childhood was full of love, warmth and care, it was also very challenging and the voice hearing began.
But now, at the age of 35, I finally see myself as a useful person in society who has something to offer other people. That’s what makes me smile the most. Jewish Chronicle (UK), 10th June 2010
How Mental Health First Aid can help you Annie also explains how they help people to understand others who hear voices.
“We have exercises from the hearing voice network,” she says. “The participant can hear people hearing voices and what it’s like for them. From there they can develop an understanding.” And the course teaches participants in the resources which are on offer to them. At the end of the course they help people to put together an action plan in how they will use the material. Annie said the best way to reach out to people with mental health issues is to be there for them. “Let them know you are available to listen to them non-judgementally, that’s the key. BBC News (UK), 27th May, 2010
Jacqui Dillon – hearing voices: Interview Jacqui Dillon is a guest speaker at a conference in Wellington this week and in Auckland next week at the Making Sense of Psychosis conference, held by Auckland University and organized jointly by the NZ branch of the International Society for the Psychological Treatments of Schizophrenia and the NZ Hearing Voices Network. (Originally aired on Nine To Noon), Radio New Zealand National Wednesday 14 April 2010
Asylum: Democratic Psychiatry in 2010 In Britain the democratic psychiatry movement had to engage with the so-called ‘anti-psychiatrists’, and there was a long interview with R. D. Laing in the first issue of Asylum, but this meant tackling the romanticising of ‘madness’ that was popular among some radicals at the time. It was clear right from the start that simply flipping over from pathological labels like schizophrenia to celebrating it as if it was some kind of liberation just did not take suffering seriously. This is why Asylum over the years has been a focus-point for groups of activists inside the system searching for better ways out, and why many of those who had already been organised in the Mental Patients Union from the early 1970s became involved. Groupings like Survivors Speak Out in the 1980s and then in the 1990s the National Self-Harm Network influenced by feminism found a voice in Asylum, as did ‘Mad Pride’ and the Hearing Voices Network (HVN) which brought together those labelled as subject to treatment because the DSM treats the hearing of voices as a first-rank symptom of schizophrenia. One of the grotesque features of psychiatry is that it trains doctors from around the world who buy into Western notions of what is normal and then diagnose as pathological experiences like hearing the voices of spirits that are unproblematic in many other cultures.
One of the paradoxes of the ‘anti-psychiatry’ and democratic psychiatry movements is that they have been led by those with privilege and power, by psychiatrists, whether that has been Franco Basaglia in Trieste, Ronnie Laing in Britain, Marius Romme in Maastricht as inspiration for the HVN, or Alec Jenner as a founding editor of Asylum magazine in Sheffield. But this leadership, by men, white men, has then given way to self-organisation of the oppressed in the field of mental health to argue about whether this suffering should be taken seriously as ‘illness’ with a demand for more resources, whether this suffering is symptomatic of life under capitalism, and what the place of this struggle with other social movements could be. Socialist Resistance, 18th February 2010
1 In 10 Kids Hear Voices, Study Shows Your child may hear the voices of people you can’t see, but don’t worry. He doesn’t have the Sixth Sense. He’s just experiencing what almost one in every 10 children ages 7 to 10 goes through, according to an article in the latest issue of the British Journal of Psychiatry. The article comes with the snappy title of “Prevalence and correlates of auditory vocal hallucinations in middle childhood.” What it means is that kids often hear voices. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. “These voices in general have a limited impact in daily life,” Agna A. Bartels-Velthuis tells the Reuters news service. She works for the University Center for Psychiatry at the University of Groningen in The Netherlands, and was one of three lead researchers on the project. Most children don’t find the voices troubling or disruptive to their thinking, according to the study. Researchers found that some 16 percent of mentally healthy children and teens may hear voices. That can be a warning sign of schizophrenia and other mental health problems later in life, they report, but the “great majority” of kids will be fine. Bartels-Velthuis tells Reuters parents should relax. “In most cases, the voices will just disappear,” she says. “I would advise them to reassure their child and to watch him or her closely.” Parent Dish (UK), 26th January 2010
Hearing voices in childhood may be common Many children and adolescents may hear voices that aren’t really there, but most don’t suffer any long-term effects of the imaginary chatter, according to a new study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry. As Reuters reports, a study of 3,870 Dutch preschoolers found that nearly one in ten reported hearing voices “that only you and no one else can hear.” Yet, though 9% of these seven- and eight-year-olds reported hearing voices, few of them said that the voices bothered them or disturbed their thinking. Previous study has found that as many as 16% of children and adolescents of sound mental health hear voices that aren’t really there. While, in some instances hearing voices may indicate a heightened risk for mental disorders such as schizophrenia, the authors of this latest study suggest that, in the great majority of cases, children who hear voices do not go on to develop mental illness. Of the nearly 350 children included in the study who reported hearing voices, only 15% said that the chatter caused them serious suffering, and 19% said that the voices interfered with their thinking. The team of researchers from University Medical Center Groningen in the Netherlands also found that while boys and girls were equally likely to report hearing voices, girls were more likely to be upset by them.
Additionally, while the researchers expected to find that more urban children reported hearing voices, in fact, that was more common among children from rural areas. What they did find though, was that kids who lived in urban areas reported higher levels of disturbance due to the voices, something the researchers suggested might indicate a higher risk for developing mental disorders later in life. The researchers are currently conducting a five-year follow-up study to examine the more long-term impact of hearing voices in childhood. While the researchers are eager to gain a better understanding of mental illness risk factors associated with hearing voices in childhood, they emphasize that, for most children, hearing voices will not have long-term consequences. As Agna A. Bartels-Velthuis, one of the study’s authors, told Reuters, “In most cases the voices will just disappear.” And for parents whose children may be hearing voices, she offered this advice: “I would advise them to reassure their child and to watch him or her closely.” Time Magazine, 26th January 2010