The Hearing Voices Network is spreading in the United States… but not fast enough for my tastes. (The inactivity demanded by patience takes a ridiculous amount of energy to sustain.) In spite of being one of the more groundbreaking efforts to take hold in our country in the last several years, it’s still most often relegated to ‘balcony seating’ at public events and referenced only as an afterthought or honorable mention. (Never mind all the people in the mental health system who are left without options in the interim.)
There are a few exceptions, of course, but even for some of the more progressive events around, Hearing Voices work tends to be a bit of a side note. For example, the International Society for Psychological and Social Approaches to Psychosis (ISPS) did an admirable job of accepting a surprisingly large number of ‘Hearing Voices’-oriented workshops to its 2015 international conference held in New York City just last month. Unlike many conferences of similar ilk, ISPS also worked to make the conference accessible to people who were so-called ‘experts by experience.’ Indeed, by offering a substantially reduced fee option (no questions asked), they gracefully avoided the cavernous contradiction that so many others fall into when they claim to value the voice of people who have ‘been there’ and/or peer-to-peer support while sitting comfortably beyond the velvet ropes of a high-priced registration fee.
However, several of the ‘Hearing Voices’ workshops at ISPS were nonetheless pitted against one another in identical time slots, rather than organized into a clearly coherent track of any kind. Even more were lost to a sea of too many choices and/or obscure placement in hard-to-find rooms. And, of course, nothing ‘Hearing-Voices’-oriented was given center stage in the space where all the keynotes were held. In fact, the one keynote with personal experience who did take that stage seemed to speak largely within the confines of standard ‘mental illness’-speak.
Another example would be the recent (FREE!) Yale Symposium, “New Data and New Hopes Call for New Practices in Clinical Psychiatry,’ as co-sponsored by the Yale Program for Recovery and Community Health, the Foundation for Excellence in Mental Health Care and the Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services. This event offered an impressive line-up of several names straight off of ‘Robert Whitaker’s most frequently referenced researchers’ list including Martin Harrow, Courtenay Harding and Lex Wunderink alongside other notables like David Healy and Mary Olson. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen quite such a line up, really, and I have little bad to say about the efforts that went into pulling this group together.
However, it wasn’t until the very end of the day when several people noted that perhaps having someone speak to the Hearing Voices Movement might have been a meaningful addition, and that there were, in fact, a selection of the most prominent United States-based trainers and/or researchers (Marty Hadge, Caroline White, Gail Hornstein) related to the Hearing Voices movement present in that very room.
Of course, it tends to only get (dramatically) more conservative from there. For instance, there wasn’t even the faintest mention of Hearing Voices work at the National Council for Behavioral Health conference (attended by over 4000!). The best part is, no matter how hard we try to get the word out in spite of the many hurdles to access that we experience, we (those of us who are doing this sort of work) are still typically the ones to get blamed for lack of knowledge about these initiatives. It’s quite the bind.
At least as frustrating, when Hearing Voices work does get discussed it is all too often steeped in misconception. Some of the top misunderstandings (with apparent cockroach-like longevity!) about ‘Hearing Voices’ work include:
- “Hey, I’ve been through that Pat Deegan training!”: So, yes, Pat Deegan has put together a ‘Hearing Distressing Voices’ training generally offered for a few hundred dollars. She also wrote a booklet called, ‘Coping with Voices,’ that is intended to offer self-help strategies to people experiencing distressing voices. Whether or not anyone finds them useful (and surely, some do), neither of these has anything at all to do with the Hearing Voices movement, and the book, in particular, is full of insulting and childish illustrations and stereotypically ‘distraction’-oriented and other such simplistic self-help techniques.
- “Hearing Voices Training… That’s where you put on some headphones and learn what it’s like to hear voices, right?”: Yes, the headphone training (whether offered through Deegan’s program or some pharmaceutically sponsored gem) sure is popular for all its sensationalism. However, while there can be value in doing some sort of voice hearing simulation within the context of a larger training, I’m not sure what this accomplishes in isolation other then perhaps to (at best) elicit pity, or (at worst) more fear. The goal of Hearing Voices Network trainings is not simply to help you understand the hard lot in the life of a voice hearer, so much as it is to build understanding about potential meaning, differences, strengths and potential.
- “Oh, yes, Hearing Voices Groups. That’s kind of like Schizophrenics Anonymous.” No. Just… No. I’m not going to say much about Schizophrenics Anonymous, because I lack any genuine familiarity with them, but I have at least gathered that people aren’t particularly allowed to talk about the content of their voices during meetings… So, no.
There’s also the endless threat of co-optation and conversion into ‘recovery porn’ (a term I believe was first coined by the one and only Sharon Cretsinger), once ‘Hearing Voices’ truly does make its way into the mainstream. But, beyond all the whining, complaining and virtual foot stomping lies the forever question of how to move forward… For better or worse, I still haven’t found a better way to accomplish that goal other than to yank myself out of the comfortable abstraction of my own philosophical musings and take action; One foot in front of the other, as they say.
No, I don’t believe the Hearing Voices Movement is a panacea, and I have no intention of even trying to proselytize the masses into being true believers. But Hearing Voices does offer something fundamentally different and sometimes life changing that surely deserves to be as well known as the infamous Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, twelve-step groups, and so on.
Of course, I’m hoping that this blog might contribute to consciousness raising, and move more people to think about featuring Hearing Voices work more prominently in future efforts. But, more importantly, I want to take advantage of this captive audience opportunity to share some of the ways I and others who are a part of the Western Mass Recovery Learning Community are taking actual action to build access to ‘Hearing Voices’ in the now:
The Hearing Voices Research and Development Fund, through the Foundation for Excellence in Mental Health Care (the same organization that sponsored the Yale Symposium noted above!) is beginning a 3-year training and research project to bring Hearing Voices support groups to communities across the United States, and to research the mechanisms by which these groups work. The project will train more than 100 facilitators in 5 regions and create a stronger regional and local infrastructure of Hearing Voices peer-support groups across the USA. Applications from interested parties are being accepted now through June 1.
The Hearing Voices Research and Development Fund is jointly administered by Gail A. Hornstein, Professor of Psychology, Mount Holyoke College, and Jacqui Dillon, National Chair, Hearing Voices Network, England. Key partners in the project include Mount Holyoke College and the Western Massachusetts Recovery Learning Community. (For more information, view the full announcement here and to learn more about the application process, click here!)
3-Day Maastricht Training (Monday, July 13 to Wednesday, July 15 @ Holyoke Community College, Kittredge Center, Holyoke, MA): This three-day workshop is particularly for people working in clinical or peer roles, and other supporters who are working with people who hear voices or experience other unusual phenomenon. It focuses on teaching participants how to use the Maastricht Interview to support individuals to understand and navigate their experiences.
The Maastricht Interview is a semi-structured questionnaire. It was developed by Dr. Sandra Escher, Professor Marius Romme and voice hearer Patsy Hage as a way to explore the experience of voice hearing in depth, map out voices, and provide the tools needed to build trust, openness and understanding.
Trainers will include Peter Bullimore and Hayley Taylor, both joining us from the United kingdom especially for this event. Click here for a registration form and more details!
4-Day Hearing Voices Group Facilitator Training (Monday, August 3 to Thursday, August 6 @ Holyoke Community College, Kittredge Center, Holyoke, MA): This four-day training will support people to start new hearing voices groups or support existing ones. It includes a variety of components to a review of the Hearing Voices USA charter to interactive exercises and mock groups.
Trainers will include Lisa Forestell, Marty Hadge and other guests to be announced. Click here for a registration form and more details!
I’m also really pleased to share that the event we co-sponsored (with the Boston University Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation and Mad in America) featuring Eleanor Longden is being turned into a Continuing Education course through Mad in America’s new on-line Continuing Ed program.
Much activity is afoot, and certainly not all related to me or the Western Mass RLC. But we sure are glad to do our part.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.