How Can We Talk About Difficult Experiences Non-Violently?


I really valued the massive Melbourne Hearing Voices conference last week. There were many highlights, but for me the theme of reconciliation between voice hearers and mental health workers was a powerful one. How can we talk about difficult experiences and be as non-violent as possible? I like this idea. As Russel Brand says (in his recent Huffington Post interview) if you stay non-violent in your protest for a more compassionate equal society, you create a paradigm shift.

This emphasis on creating understanding conversations at the conference was encouraged with dialogues between people on specific subjects  – medication, spirituality, psychological approaches to voices etc. – rather than keynotes.  It seemed a move away from presentations of competing knowledges, toward a more dialogical conference; a respectful exchange of different viewpoints, feelings and values. When you have a range of views in a presentation it’s less easy to adopt a “good guys vs. bad guys” mentality; you start to see the complexities in more relief.

The surprise for me was that I liked it.

I am interested in Hearing Voices network events (and similar gatherings); in how we try to include people in these conversations and encourage everyone to feel they have a voice and a space to be heard.  So, inspired by the congress last week and conversations with friends, I am asking myself a few questions around inclusion. Here are thoughts on some of them:

Question 1: If You Don’t Hear Voices, Are You a Welcome Participant at Hearing Voices Events? 

A friend of mine who does not hear voices has told me she felt a little on the outside at a recent Hearing Voices group launch. I don’t hear voices. I do have different parts of me that I am getting to know better, and partly this self-understanding work is inspired by my involvement in the Hearing Voices communities.

I have a confusing role in the Hearing Voices networks as often I am described as a voice hearer. My story is in the anthology Living with Voices 50 stories of Recovery. I agreed to be in it despite being clear about the limitations of my experiential qualifications. I did get a diagnosis of Schizophrenia, but like me 40% of people given this label don’t hear voices. I am aware that my sensing of messages from the TV and radio and other sources when I was 18 was not the voice hearing most people talk about in hearing voices groups, although there is an overlap.

Flick Grey did a workshop working with the theme of ‘What Do You Do if You Don’t Hear Voices?’  Unfortunately, I was not able to go.

I do feel welcome in Hearing Voices networks, I think it’s because I am keen to listen to people’s experiences of voice hearing and what its like and what helps and that seems to be valued. Sometimes I have to let people know I don’t hear voices and sometimes people are disappointed by this.  In every social group some experiences are given more credit and respect than others.  Because I got a label of schizophrenia (I don’t believe in the value of this label myself) at 18 and now practice as a psychologist, ironically it now gives me a lot of legitimacy in part of the mental health field.  I’m almost an honorary voice-hearer.

I like to think of myself as a voice listener, at least on a good day I try and listen creatively to the different voices in our lives.  I think as Flick’s workshop perhaps highlighted there is work to be done to make people feel they have a role in the hearing voices networks if they don’t hear voices directly (at least in waking hours – I reckon in our dreams we are all voice hearers).  I have used some of the organisiing principles of hearing voices groups to organise Evolving minds meetings which are public meetings about social and emotional wellbeing and getting by in what is often a mad world.

Question 2: If You Don’t Have Lived Experience of Using Psychiatric Services Are You Welcomed at Hearing Voices Network Events? 

I think despite the collaborative conversations that were centre stage at the conference, a few workers both at the Hearing Voices congress and other recent educational events I have attended have appeared to have felt lonely and hurt that both their own experiences of distress and confusion might not be legitimate or valuable and they might be being blamed for peoples bad experiences of psychiatry. Some workers may have felt that because they lack the qualification of ‘lived experience’ they might be seen as second rate, that they lack the kudos or the ‘freedom to be empathised with’ of the underdog. Finally with the talk of reconciliation some workers seemed to feel under attack that they might be being cast as perpetrators of exclusive or harmful practices. Indigo helpfully talked of workers (and us all) needing to sit with the discomfort of past misunderstandings and violence. This learning to sit with pain is key I think for us all if we are going to try and create more healing community. Sarah Reece has written powerfully about this process on her blog about ‘being with’ in supporting her partner who was attacked while she was at the conference.

I agree about the importance of practices that allow is to sit with pain. I think it is something we all need to learn to do because we can all act oppressively towards each other at times. In the conference I gave an example of when I was feeling upset about my witnessing the injustice and pain of an Aboriginal man I saw beaten up in the street. I went on to describe how I diverted some of my painful feelings (of anger and sadness) into campaigning tweets against a mental health charity. At one point I wondered whether my rants were as helpful as I imagined they were. Could I also be offending people and putting them off alternative approaches to mental health? While I do think we need to rock the boat at times I am interested in how we do this without judging and blaming and shaming the people whom we want to influence. If we do this we are at risk of repeating the cycle of violence. So more things to think about.

Question 3: If You Are a Voice Are You Welcomed?

At various times in the conference alongside people and ancestors, voices were welcomed. It would be nice if that happened at the beginning of all hearing voices conferences. If the core of hearing voices networks is acceptance of voice hearing a warm welcome would seem appropriate. As an African man at a conference last year said if we are anxious about voices they get anxious. I would like to suggest welcoming voices themselves (this does not mean I think we should welcome aggressive behaviour more find ways to be safe and then try to understand it) is more likely to lead to more peaceful relationships in the long term.

Question 4: Are There Ways in Which the Concept of Recovery  is Holding Us Back?

Somebody asked the question at the conference does recovery mean becoming more middleclass? I am interested in how we can talk about healing, empowering ways of relating, empathic witnessing and being with each other and valuing each other as we are. There is a danger of institutions privileging social mobility success stories (like my own ‘from patient to professional’ story) and thereby devaluing other people’s journeys to becoming more independent, more authentic or just getting by in a world replete with obstacles to ones dignity and intrinsic social value. There is also a danger that in focusing on individualistic journeys we place less emphasis on the social dynamics that drive people mad. I would like us to focus more on social contexts that create hurt and pain as well as individual testimonies (which are also highly valuable).

The way Aboriginal people have been treated historically in Australia by colonialist practices was brought up at the conference and acknowledged. As someone said to me in Melbourne: in the U.K. black people have (at least) 6 times the rates of diagnoses of schizophrenia so should not the hearing voices network in the UK being doing more to work with African Caribbean communities? This challenges me. I am asking myself what can I do over the next 5 years to work more collaboratively with African Caribbean communities? Also I am asking myself: What can I do to make more links between individual distress and the socio economic situation in the UK and the world. For example in the UK there are massive benefit cuts and blaming media attacking of benefit claimants. In such ways the government and parts of the media are oppressing many people who are struggling and deserve a basic income and not to be chastised and harassed about it. I think in the hearing voices networks we need to speak up more about these important social contexts such as racism, and the social policies of reducing support to, and discrediting vulnerable people in difficult circumstances.

* * * * *

Of further interest:


  1. Wouldn’t beat your self up about tweeting at Rethink. Rethink is a despicable org imo and all your tweets were legitimate criticism. They take pharm cash and the CEO thinks this doesn’t represent any sort of conflict of interest or influence Rethink in anyway.

    Disease mongering filth in my book. The last think Rethink will ever do is Rethink…anything…

    Report comment