Breaking The Silence – Supporting Young People who Hear Voices in the US

Rai Waddingham
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Harry: Do you think I should have told them? Dumbledore and the others, I mean.
Ron: Are you mad?
Hermione: No, Harry. Even in the wizarding world, hearing voices isn’t a good sign.

– Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

In the last few years I’ve developed a sincere admiration for those youth workers who specialise in working with young people pushed out onto the edge of society. I’ve witnessed, first hand, the ease with which they can broach topics that would leave many of us feeling uncomfortable. The best of them can speak about sex, violence, drugs and exploitation in a real and pragmatic way that signals a deep acceptance and understanding of the dilemmas young people face – with no blame or judgement. This ability to transform the taboo into the ordinary is something I’ve tried to develop in my own work. Through Voice Collective, a project supporting children and young people who hear voices in London, I specialise in training youth workers to do the one thing that can push them far outside of their comfort zone – talking with young people about hearing voices.

What is it about voice-hearing that even talking about it can silence those who navigate other taboo subjects with ease? Part of the problem can be found in caricatures of what it means to be a ‘voice-hearer’ in the western world – the deranged killer, the tragic victim of illness and the mad genius. These images, handed down from generation to generation, saturate popular culture and sensationalist journalism. They are what we see when we turn on the TV, read a book or catch the latest horror film. There are exceptions, obviously, but these shining examples of human experience are often overshadowed by our fascination with madness and dangerousness. On a deep level, these three caricatures are woven from the same base fear – the fear of being overwhelmed (physically or psychically) from that which we don’t understand and can’t predict. In the face of this fear, talking about voice-hearing with young people can feel a lot like poking a stick into the heart of a hornet’s nest. It can seem easer, and safer, just to let things be (or wait for a specialist to come and deal with it on our behalf).

Imagine being a 13 year old who has started to hear voices that no-one around you seems willing to talk about in a society saturated with negative stereotypes. At a time when, like all adolescents, you’re struggling to make sense of who you are and how you relate to the world – how might you make sense of this silence?

Just like Harry Potter in the example above, I’ve met many young people who worry that there is something fundamentally wrong with them. The details vary from person to person, but I’ve heard young people describe themselves as ‘freakish’, ‘wrong’, ‘evil’, ‘dangerous’ and ‘ill’. These are powerful words that paint them as someone to be avoided, or at least held at a distance from the so-called ‘normal’ population. Furthermore, I have met young people who feel that they are a fraud or fake because they are not locked away – they are going to school or college and living in the world, closely guarding their secret. Some live in fear that one day a peer will find out about ‘the voices’ and reject them. It can feel as if their life is build out of sand and one strong wave might wash it away. In teaching young people that the voices are the problem and, under no circumstances, should we listen to them we’re simply instigating what Eleanor Longden referred to as a ‘psychic civil war’. We’re pushing the factions further apart, effectively blocking any potential for understanding and resolution. In doing this, we become part of the problem.

Recognising our own role as individuals within a society that still holds voice hearing as a taboo is key to working for change. It’s uncomfortable, but change – on the whole – is rarely easy. So, what can we do to create a society where young people who hear voices are able to flourish? The first step is simple – we need to find a way to feel more comfortable with the topic of hearing voices. The good news is that there are plenty of places to draw inspiration from in this respect. Talking with young people about voices/visions is a lot like talking about sex or drugs. It’s a topic we, as adults, can uncomfortable with – but we recognise its importance. No matter how difficult we find broaching the subject it’s helpful to know that the taboo surrounding voice-hearing is not as pervasive and fixed as we might think.

#1. Voice-Hearing – If We Listen, the Words are Already Out There

Just as the themes of sex, drugs and relationships can be heard blaring out of stereos across the globe, hearing voices and other so called ‘unusual’ experiences are out there too. These references slip under our collective radar, and are rarely our first thought when we imagine talking about voice-hearing. They don’t fit with the stereotype, so we often dismiss them as ‘metaphors’ or ‘artistic license’. If you listen closely, though, you can hear artists as diverse as Eminem, Bruno Mars, Regina Spektor, Linkin Park and Kasabian singing about voices as if they’ve never heard that it’s a taboo. As a teenager and young adult I remember connecting with music on a very deep level, trusting it to speak those things I felt least able to articulate. How many young people have a voice-related song on their personal soundtrack?

Next time you turn on the radio, have a listen. Whereas the mainstream media representations of voice-hearers are little more than shallow caricatures, there are songs on the radio that speak about the voices themselves with much more depth and humanity.

‘The voices in my head are taking over, they’re telling me that my life is in danger” – Crown The Empire

“I hear voices in my head, they council me, they understand me, they talk to me” – Rev Theory

“I never loved nobody fully, always one foot on the ground, and by protecting my heart truly, I got lost in the sounds I hear in my mind, all of these voices, I hear in my mind, all these words, I hear in my mind, all this music, and it breaks my heart” – Regina Spektor

“I’m friends with the monster that’s under my bed, get along with the voices in side of my head, you’re trying to save me – stop holding your breath, and you think I’m crazy” – Eminem, feat. Rihanna

These songs speak of a diverse human experience that can be understood, and explored, in many ways. As voice-hearing, according to the research, is something most of us have experienced in one form or another – this diversity is more accurate than any one dimensional cardboard cut out could ever be.

#2. Once You Get Past the Awkwardness, Young People are Interested in Talking About Voices

Do you remember sex education at school? I do. It was uncomfortable, most of us made a joke of it and it was probably our teacher’s least favourite lesson. Back then I wore the humour as a shield, a ‘who cares?’ attitude that protected a maelstrom of questions bubbling away inside. Like many in my class, I needed to know that it was safe to put the shield down before I could reveal what was underneath. Unfortunately, teachers who feel uncomfortable about talking about sex rarely create a space safe enough to facilitate this. The jokes stay and the teacher is justified in feeling that talking about sex with young teens is a painful waste of everyone’s time. A different teacher, one who feels comfortable with the subject matter, may find that the laughter is a temporary feature of what can become a lively and useful discussion.

This phenomenon fits well with my experience of talking about voice-hearing with children and young people in schools. I remember the first class of 30 12-13 year olds that I went in to speak to. The first 5 minutes skirted around the edges of chaos, only shifting when I began to tell my story. I shared the PG version, focusing on how I couldn’t tell anyone about it when I was younger – and what helped when I finally found the words to speak up. It wasn’t instantaneous, but over the course of my story people started to pay attention and began to ask questions. By the end of the session we were having a really open-minded discussion, with the class keen to share their own ‘unusual’ experiences safe in the knowledge that none of us are really strange. This is something I’ve witnessed again and again. Young people, having had less time to learn that voice-hearing is something we don’t talk about, are often quite keen to explore it once they are given the signal that it’s OK.

#3. We Can Learn a lot From Listening to Young People who Hear Voices

There are many things that we, as adults, struggle to talk about. The good news is that young people who have experience of these issues can be light years ahead of us in their ability to communicate about it. Whilst we’re agonising over the wording and wrapping things up in easily digestible wrapping, young people are often able to tell it like it is. At Voice Collective this understanding has helped us write information sheets on topics that we would previously have avoided (e.g. ‘Voices, Visions, Gender & Sexuality’). A couple of years ago, we put our money where our mouth is and hired Chocolate Films to work a group of young voice-hearers to create an animation. We made the conscious choice to limit our input to designing the basic brief, asking them to create a short animation that we can take with us in to schools to get people talking about voice-hearing. The young people were in charge of planning, creating and editing the animation itself. It was amazing witness the way the young animators shared their experience of voices, visions and stigma freely whilst discussing ideas for the storyboard. Any concern I had about the end product soon evaporated as it became obvious that these young animators knew exactly what they wanted to say. The end result ‘A Little Insight’ is simply amazing. It speaks with more clarity and authenticity than anything I could have come up with myself.

What fills me with hope is that some of the young animators featured above came to Voice Collective believing themselves to be freaks. Those who speak out with courage and clarity are also those who once kept silent out of fear. If those who have been vilified, excluded, patronised and bullied can find their voice – then how can we, as adults, refuse to speak? The best way to get used to talking about sensitive topics is talking about it until we feel comfortable, testing out the words in our mouth until they become part of our everyday vocabulary. The more we do it, the easier it gets.

This month, I’m excited to be travelling to the United States to run a series of workshops on voice-hearing in partnership with local Hearing Voices Networks. All of these workshops are free, so if you’re in the area and you’d like to come along please get in touch with one of the organisers to find out if there are still places available. Whether or not you’re able to join me on the day, I hope you’ve continue to work with the International Hearing Voices Movement to share a more positive and inclusive message about voice-hearing.

Let’s Break the Silence

2 May – Hearing Voices in Childhood & Adolescence, 9.00am (Colmar, PA)

3 May – Breaking The Silence – A special event for young people who hear voices, their families and youth workers, 10.00am (Colmar, PA)

7 May – Taboo and Violent Voices, 9.30 – 4.00pm (Hartford, CT)

7 May – Children and Voices, 6pm (Hartford, CT)

8 May – Taboo & Violent Voices, 9.30am (Holyoke, MA – full to capacity)

9 May – Hearing Voices in Childhood & Adolescence, 9.30am (Holyoke, MA)

For more information on this approach, see: www.voicecollective.co.uk

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Rachel Waddingham, manager of the London Hearing Voices Project, discusses her personal experience with Hearing Voices groups during an interview at the 2012 World Hearing Voices Congress in Cardiff, Wales.

Rachel’s recovery from psychiatric labelling and unnecessary treatment from CEP.

5 COMMENTS

  1. I worked at a mental health center for a while with a pretty decent psychiatrist. He described a client who was Native American who was hearing voices. He respectfully offered that he had some medication that might make the voices go away.

    The response: “You white people are all the same. You hear voices in your head, you want to make them go away. When we hear voices, we go sit down someplace quiet and see if they have anything interesting to say!”

    Would that we all had that attitude!

    — Steve