Hearing Voices: Misconception, Misdirection & Moving Forward

Sera Davidow
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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:

  1. “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.
  1. “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.
  1. “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.

30 COMMENTS

  1. I think the idea of the Hearing Voices Network is great, and it does a lot to change the attitude of the public towards people with a mental illness label in general. It is wonderful to see people like Eleanor Longden getting a lot of public attention that counters the stereotypes of people who are considered outside the pale. But at the risk (which I often take) of being denounced as politically incorrect, I have to say that this is becoming a fad. I know there are a lot of people who I KNOW do not hear voices, jumping into this movement and claiming to be its leaders.

    In my ten years in a state hospital, and my decades in our movement, I have met very few people who hear voices. I think it is great that there is a trend now to help people to deal with this who have to deal with it, but let’s get real.

    Even though I think this is a good development, there are a LOT of other things that need to be done. We need to think about strategy in general. Just because this (very constructive) movement is getting a lot of public attention doesn’t mean that we should think it’s going to solve all the problems we have to face.

    • Good point Ted. One must take it on faith when someone says ‘I hear voices’. When people make this claim while seeming to gravitate towards the limelight one is left to wonder if authentic voice hearers are at risk of losing their voices to attention seekers. Just the same we should allow for a wide range of subjective experience. My daughter claims that she hears voices but she also claims that the voices didn’t start until after her second or third involuntary hospitalization, involving restraint and forced medication. Her voices are not like distinct personalities either. They are more like ‘impressions’ and she once reflected that they may be loosely associated with former friends from her past. She claims that they do not command her to do things but sometimes during our conversations she will remark that a voice is bombarding her with expletives. I believe everything my daughter tells me at face value because people like my daughter have very little to gain from admitting that they hear voices.

    • I work in a state hospital.

      I have to say that a large number of people held there hear “voices”. It is very common and I’m surprised when I am introduced to someone who doesn’t have this experience. However, “voices” may not always be the best way to describe the experiences that people have because many different kinds of things are heard, from actual voices to music to noises. A good friend of mine even experiences visual things like colors and artistic things along with the music or noises that he hears. The experiences are about as varied as the people experiencing them. I guess voices are the thing that most people settle on to describe this experience because some of the voices are so vehement or abusive. However, just as many people have voices that are helpful and protective and some people even experience voices changing from abusive to protective and vice versa. Every experience of “hearing voices” is as unique as the person having the experience. But they are real and a lot of the people I work with experience them. They are not an uncommon experience.

      One of the things which upsets me a great deal is that most of the clinical staff try to force people to quit “hearing voices”. They claim that the voices or experiences don’t exist and they hound people into denying them. They claim that this shows that the person is “mentally ill” even though we know that about 15% of humanity hears things of various kinds so this shows that this experience is part of the continuum of what it means to be human. This wrecks havoc on the “patient” and I do not feel that such an approach is helpful at all to anyone. But just you dare bring this up in any meetings of clinical staff and see what happens. Clinical staff want to at least control if not destroy these experiences and to suggest that you should deal with or interact with peoples’ voices is heresy and anathema in the highest degree.

      • Stephen – I am glad for looking back here to reread your comment, so totally on message– Finally, with Sera and you at once in mind, the memory returns to me of one very valuable instrument for this discussion. Thomas Szasz wrote the highly accessible “The Meaning of Mind”, in which in fact he addresses the sorts of queries you are seeing as relevant. He develops the context for neuroscientific verdicts on voice-hearing and the contemporary interpretations of the neuroscience, talks about the possibilities of the experiencer’s understanding and the clinician’s comprehension of their report, and so on. Researching updated neuroscientific studies would be easy, too. Like Bonnie Burstow says about book activism for our PR efforts, the same holds true for anchoring debates among ourselves. I hope you get the book and enjoy it. The forums are right there as soon as two or more of us have any important reference fresh to our acquaintance, and “The Meaning of Mind” is impressive. Moreover, Dr. Szasz produced the work for this very set of contingencies at issue for raising awareness about “hearing voices”. How better to stay clear about the finer points of dialogue between the HV community and the lived experience community in general, like Sera says happens in Mass.?

      • I have a book on the way called Psychopathic Psychotronics. It is an account of my experiences as a targeted individual for illegal experimentation with wireless neurophone technologies. In 2006 my refrigerator happily explained to me “this is called electronic harassment and we are going to brainwash you. I’m a microwave murderer with a voice to the skull and this is how we kill people, with our psychopathic section 8 psychotronics”. I spent a month hearing this is called holographic sound coming from everywhere. I want you to learn about wireless neurophone technologies and the following as well, Human auditory perception of pulsed radio frequency energies, Frey effect, microwave hearing, silent subliminal (patent 5,159,703 filed in 1973) uses the Frey effect to beam sound at an inaudible range to the nervous system thus causing you to perceive it but not really hear it. This is often used to make command voices. Synthetic telepathy, remote neural monitoring and Voice to the skull. I incorporated the majority of these terms into the statement used for my 9 month forced psychiatric commitment. More people in the medical field know of and exploit these technologies than anyone realizes.

  2. I’m not personally too familiar with the Hearing Voices movement. But came across this article:

    http://psychcentral.com/news/2006/06/13/child-abuse-can-cause-schizophrenia/18.html

    Which states, “’We work very closely in collaboration with the Hearing Voices Network, that is with the people who hear voices in their head. The experience of hearing voices is consistently associated with childhood trauma regardless of diagnosis or genetic pedigree.’

    “Dr Read said: ‘I hope we soon see a more balanced and evidence-based approach to schizophrenia and people using mental health services being asked what has happened to them and being given help instead of stigmatizing labels and mood-altering drugs.'”

    And I’d like to add, since I personally didn’t have “voices” prior to being put on neuroleptics. I was put on them due to a DSM-IV-TR misdiagnosis of the common symptoms of antidepressant discontinuation syndrome, due to being withdrawn from a “safe smoking cessation med” too quickly. But I got the incessant “voices” of the people who allegedly abused my child in my head almost the entire time I was on the neuroleptics, which was gross. The neuroleptics can and do cause psychosis in some people. From drugs.com:

    “neuroleptics … may result in … the anticholinergic intoxication syndrome … Central symptoms may include memory loss, disorientation, incoherence, hallucinations, psychosis, delirium, hyperactivity, twitching or jerking movements, stereotypy, and seizures.”

    And trying to cure neuroleptic induced psychosis / “voices” with more and more neuroleptics makes things worse, not better.

    Absolutely, the “mental health industry” really does need to start asking, “what has happened to [the person] and being given help instead of stigmatizing labels and mood-altering drugs.” Because the drugs do make things much worse for some people.

    And since today’s mainstream “mental health” industry claims to know that psychosis / voices have nothing to do with a person’s real life problems, I’d like to say that is the opposite of my experience. I was eventually handed over the medical evidence of the abuse in my child’s medical records, too.

    Maybe those who believe in a collective unconscious are right? And the psych drugs allow the child molesters to harass their victims in their own heads? I don’t know, but I do know the psychiatric drugs do cause the symptoms of the psychiatric illnesses. And the “voices” have everything to do with one’s real life problems.

    So I agree, listening to what the “voices” say is important, even if it means having to overcome one’s denial of the actual abuse of her precious child, which isn’t pleasant. But one cannot heal when living in denial, and this basically is what psychiatric stigmatization and tranquilization prevents … healing.

  3. Sera – Since the thread went in fifteen different directions–and how could it not?–I just reread your article to get more in touch with the topical elements. Now, the fact of the news bulletin content at the end can come much more quickly to the tip of my tongue, if anything hints at it in casual encounters around here. But the same thing stuck with me as before for your steady perorations (ruminations put in shipshape, maybe?) that you lead off with. Tens times better were these than the standard textbook samples of good persuasion and ways of effectively eliciting reader interest. My imagination therefore put me in the most contented place for “giving a fair hearing” to your version of how Hearing Voices can only turn out central to advancing our cause(s). Whoever was the first person who got to read your work back to you for your own final consideration has a very nice occupation in line for the future, definitely.

  4. Am I the only one here that knows about psychotronics?
    Wireless neurophone, Voice to the skull, Synthetic telepathy, holographic sound, microwave hearing, Frey effect, Human auditory perception of pulsed radio frequency energies, MEDUSA is an acronym for mob excess deterrent using silent audio which is another term for microwave hearing and this weapon will beam sounds into your nervous system at a perceived volume that would blow out your eardrums.
    Do some research folks. It’s lonely out here. My refrigerator happily explained what was happening to me in 2006 and I cannot get anyone to pull their heads from their butts and learn about electronic harassment and illegal human experimentation with energy weapons and mind control on the public. Silent subliminal is US patent 5,159,703 filed in 1973 and puts words without sound in your nervous system with a radiowave.