For three days in December, I was fortunate enough to attend the Hearing Voices Facilitator Training held in Portland, OR. Sponsored by the National Empowerment Center, Portland Hearing Voices, Puget Sound Hearing Voices, and The Foundation for Excellence in Mental Health Care, this training expanded my understanding of the voice hearing experience and equipped me with a number of tools to use in facilitating hearing voices support groups. The training leaders were Oryx Cohen, Kate Hill and John Herold. Grounded in a feeling of community, the training was dynamic, emotionally therapeutic, and educational all at the same time – a crystal clear example of how support groups themselves might manifest in the lives of their members.
So, what is the experience of hearing voices? Well, first off, it is real. It is hearing voices or sounds external to oneself that no one else seems to hear. It is seeing visions. It is even the experience of smelling, tasting, or touching something that outside observers do not themselves perceive. The definition of hearing voices even encompasses altered states or extreme beliefs. By tying all these experiences together, the Hearing Voices Movement poses two underlying questions: 1) What is real for me? 2) How do I navigate my reality?
Progressive in its use of language, the Hearing Voices Movement seeks to free the voice hearing experience from constructs of pathology. It is a not-so-well-known fact that two-thirds of voice hearers never encounter the mental health system. This is a majority, a majority of voice hearers who are not bothered by their voices. In fact, many even benefit from their voice hearing experience. There is a wealth of stories about voices that have given both comfort and good, even lifesaving (or life improving) advice to those who hear them.
Still, within the mental health system, most voice hearers struggle with their voice hearing experience. The medical model, which attempts to medicate symptoms, is seldom successful in eradicating the voices, voices which the trauma model seeks to engage in order to heal underlying trauma. While either of these approaches may prove beneficial, it is important to understand that recovery is not limited to silencing the voices. Rather, a person in recovery may effectively improve his/her relationship with the voices, so they no longer interfere with daily living.
While many members of the Hearing Voices Movement may feel that psychiatric drugs do more harm than good, this is not a basic tenet of the movement itself. What the movement does support is whatever works for the individual consumer. In other words, if psychiatric meds are proving beneficial, with a low cost in terms of negative side effects, then the movement supports the use of medications for that individual. The movement sees no reason to interfere with what works because the goal of the movement is not to make a political statement. Rather, it is to support voice hearers around the world to live with as much comfort and personal integrity as possible.
That being said, it should never be forgotten that there is plenty of scientific evidence pointing to the failings of the pharmaceutical approach to mental health. Unfortunately, it is true that withdrawal from certain psychotropic medications may bring about symptoms of psychosis many times worse than the original condition, before medication was added to the mix in the first place. For this reason, a balanced approach is critical, and that is why those of us at the facilitator training were all given copies of an incredibly informative booklet: “Harm Reduction Guide to Coming Off Psychiatric Drugs,” published by The Icarus Project and Freedom Center.
Voice Hearing Groups are inclusive and supportive. Ideally, even the group facilitator will be a voice hearer. He/she will facilitate, rather than lead. A group facilitator does not have all the answers, nor does he/she need to “fix” other members of the group. Every member of the group has wisdom and insight gained from his/her own experience. Group members listen and share, supporting one another in whatever ways they may. This may range from simply lending an ear during group time to taking a supportive role – outside of group time – in the life of a fellow group member.
During our training, we watched a documentary film, “The Doctor Who Hears Voices.” This was a dramatic reenactment of a case handled by the British clinical psychologist Rufus May. In his efforts to help stabilize a woman who had begun hearing voices, Rufus spent considerable time with her outside of the traditional clinical setting. He went hiking with her. He even invited her over to spend a bit of time with his family. While May’s approach was unconventional, it was holistic, and that is what made it so effective. It was one human being reaching out to support another, rather than a doctor further widening the doctor/patient divide.
I mention May’s approach to highlight the fact that Hearing Voices Groups are deliberately devoid of the artificial hierarchy of so-called “experts” treating the “mentally ill.” Hearing voices groups are social, not clinical. Because of this, it would not be unusual for group members to meet with and support one another on their own time. In fact, at the facilitator training, we were given a case scenario in which a hypothetical voice hearer had expressed her fear of harming her own children. While the discussion we shared over this scenario was rich in many ways, it was particularly meaningful in terms of breaking down perceived walls. Whereas, in a clinical setting, agencies like Child Protective Services might become involved – and do more harm than good – the social nature of a Hearing Voices Group would allow for less invasive support. For example, members of the group might offer to be present during times of crisis, maybe as a comforting ear on the other end of a phone line, as a temporary babysitter, or whatever else might be necessary at the time.
A Hearing Voices Group is person-centered and community-based and follows a certain set of guidelines. Hearing Voices Network USA (www.hearingvoicesusa.org), which is an offshoot of Intervoice: The International Community for Hearing Voices (www.intervoiceonline.org), has its own charter. This charter (http://www.hearingvoicesusa.org/hvn-usa-charter) details the criteria for both Affiliated and Full Group Membership. If any given Hearing Voices Group is consistent with HVN values and approach, they may be listed on the HVN-USA site and considered members.
Clearly, there is much to be gained from gathering individual groups of voice hearers under the umbrella of these national and international organizations. It creates a synergy, wherein the experiential wisdom of voice hearers may manifest itself in positive ways to bring healing not only to individuals but to societies as a whole. Still, we must never forget the power of the individual. I remember, in one of our training sessions, hearing someone remark on the simple fact that your “typical” voice hearer is incredibly strong. Who else deals with the normal hassles of everyday life, all while being bombarded by voices no one else can hear? Who else but a voice hearer navigates difficult and seemingly conflicting realities? Who else finds meaning in “madness?”
After our first day of training, we saw a movie about just such undeniable strength. We were invited to an advanced screening of HEALING VOICES, which tells the stories of a number of remarkable people. It is an exciting movie on the phenomenon of altered states – including hearing voices – being released on April 29, 2016. You can learn all about it here: www.healingvoicesmovie.com. Having happily sat through the entire film and the panel discussion afterward, I can say with confidence that it is a terrific film. It will change the way you think about hearing voices and altered states in general. And if you are interested in hosting a screening of this wonderful film, there is contact information on how to do that on the site listed above.
Hearing Voices is a movement, a movement toward acceptance and integration. Being a voice hearer myself, I look forward to the day when the trauma associated with such experiences is answered not by stigma and more trauma, but by the safe and loving embrace of an informed society willing and able to help its members – all its members – find relief from suffering.
I learned a lot and met some incredible people at the Hearing Voices Group Facilitator Training in Portland, OR. Please, if this report resonates with you, take the time to click on the links I have provided. And if you have any questions, do not hesitate to contact me, ([email protected]), or any of the following individuals:
Oryx Cohen is a leader in the international consumer/survivor/ex-patient movement. He is currently the Director of the National Empowerment Center’s Technical Assistance Center. Oryx is also Co-Producer of the documentary film HEALING VOICES, which is to be released on 4/29/16.
Kate is the director of Portland Hearing Voices, a Hearing Voices group facilitation trainer and a consultant for the National Empowerment Center.
John is the director of Puget Sound Hearing Voices.
Editors Note: This blog is part of our growing coverage of promising initiatives that work to change our current drug-centered paradigm of care. You can find our expanding Initiatives section here. If you are aware of any initiatives that you believe should be highlighted on Mad In America, please send us your suggestions.
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.
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