Hearing Voices

I’ve been attending, and lately, co-facilitating, a group called Sound Minds for over a year now. This group was started by MIFSA, based on the principles of the Hearing Voices network. I initially went along to support a friend, but found it so helpful for myself I stayed on. I feel very fortunate to have a group like this in my life, it has made a huge difference for me.

Hearing voices is actually a fairly common human experience, but one that has become linked to serious mental illness and major stigma. A lot of people who do hear voices keep this a secret and fear being found out and thought of as mad. Technically, a diagnosis such as schizophrenia require a number of criteria to be met, not just an experience such as hearing voices. But in my experience, if you tell a doctor you hear voices you will likely receive a diagnosis like this whether you have any other symptoms or not.

The standard medical approach to voice hearing goes something like this:

  1. You hear voices because your brain isn’t working properly. You have a mental illness. Your voices are auditory hallucinations.
  2. The cure for this is medication, which addresses the chemical imbalance presumed to be the basis of this illness.
  3. If medication isn’t working, increase the dosage, add more meds, and possibly ECT.
  4. If this still doesn’t work, you are a chronic case, likely to experience lifelong disability.
  5. Talk therapies don’t help, and you should never talk to or about your voices as this will only make them worse. There is no context or meaning to your voices, and hearing voices can never be a neutral or positive experience.

The problem is that for many people, this approach isn’t particularly effective. The Hearing Voices network is a grass roots movement that started in the Netherlands in the 80’s. There’s an interesting article in The Times about how Hearing Voices groups work for people. Some very interesting findings have come out of research into voice hearing, such as-

  • Many people who hear voices do not meet any of the other criteria for a mental illness
  • Many people hear positive or encouraging voices and are not distressed by their experiences
  • Most people who hear voices do so after a particularly emotional or traumatic event
  • Some people only hear voices for a short period of time, then they go away.
  • Some people find that ignoring their voices and constantly trying to distract themselves actually makes their voices worse.

So, the idea behind Sound Minds is having a group that doesn’t use the medical approach to hearing voices. We don’t presume to tell each other what their voices mean or how to manage them best. We each share our journey, our understanding of our own voices, what helps us and listen to each other and borrow strategies to help us manage our experiences. All newcomers to the group are given this printout, and told that it’s been written by other voice hearers, not by ‘experts’. We encourage them to notice if there’s anything listed they’ve already tried, and if it was a helpful approach or not.

The emphasis is upon individuality – how each person understands their voices is legitimate, and what works for each person is often different. Group members are encouraged to be accepting of a diversity of experiences and approaches to voices, and to share ideas without pressuring each other to see things their way. Some people find the biochemical model most helpful and have found medication and/or ECT to be lifesaving, but wish also to be able to talk about their experiences with people who understand. Others have a spiritual framework for their experiences, or link hearing voices to trauma. Some people find telling the voices to be quiet can restore a sense of control, while others find it escalates them. Some people find that the right approach leads to their voices going away, others find it helps them learn to live with them.

I’ve just been listening to a presentation from an International Conference about Recovery from Psychosis. The talk was called “The Personal is Political” by Jacqui Dillon. This would have been an incredible conference, the talks are available quite cheaply (compared to the cost of attending the conference!) on DVD here. Jacqui’s understanding of her own voice hearing experience is closer to DID than schizophrenia, she considers her voices to be parts of herself. This approach has clearly worked well for her and she presents about her experiences in an articulate and deeply moving way. You can hear a different interview with her here.

So, if you hear voices, or know someone who does, take heart. It is still possible to lead a wonderful meaningful life, even if your experience is one of those around learning to live with, rather than being cured of. If what you’ve tried or been told to try so far hasn’t worked, perhaps there’s some suggestions in these links that may help you to look at your situation from another perspective, and find a new approach. It’s important to keep in mind that even your best strategies may not work all the time in all situations, so don’t give up, keep looking, learning, and discovering those keys that help to give you back a sense of hope.

The Australian Hearing Voices network have a website here, with some of the groups listed. They don’t update it very regularly and so far we haven’t been able to coax them into including Sound Minds in their listings, but we’re working on it! If you’re in SA and you’d like to come to Sound Minds, the details are all here. The group runs every week but there’s no pressure to attend, people come as often or as little as they wish. You are also welcome to bring along a friend for support if you wish. If you’d like to print a flyer to keep or share, there’s a pdf here – and that’s my artwork designed in consultation with the group and donated for the flyers. 🙂

For more support, see the community I founded: The Hearing Voices Network of South Australia: www.hvnsa.org.au

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