While awareness around Depression, Anxiety and other mental health diagnoses grow, someone who hears voices is still often considered beyond the pale in terms of treatment options.
People who experience voice-hearing are usually labeled Schizophrenic, Schizoaffective or Bipolar “with psychotic features”.
Most voice-hearers who come to the traditional Psychiatric model for help, are often met with forced hospitalizations, heavy-duty cocktails of medications, and are told to not talk about the voices because talking about voices “only makes them worse”.
Let’s take another perspective.
Is the traditional psychiatric view the only way to understand voice-hearing experiences? Or could there be more?
Advocacy Unlimited, a state-funded, peer-run organization in Connecticut is doing their part to make alternative views of hearing voices more accessible. On a chilly night, December 18th, CT’s Hearing Voices Network Coordinator, Skye Collins, presented a free public screening for the film, Beyond Possible: How the Hearing Voices Approach Transforms Lives at the Transformation Training Center in Milford, CT.
Beyond Possible takes us through true stories of people who’ve recovered from hearing voices and other unusual experiences through the Hearing Voices Network and their worldwide support groups. The individuals in the film talked about their battles and how they managed to thrive despite what their psychiatrists and clinicians told them.
For many people, a diagnosis of Schizophrenia can feel akin to a death sentence. It’s too common for patients to be left with a grim prognosis and little to no odds they will get any better. Long-term patients often confess that they were told they will stay on medications for the rest of their lives and likely won’t be able to hit major adult milestones, such as holding down a job or getting married.
The Hearing Voices Model begs the question: Is the traditional psychiatric view the only way to understand their experiences? Or could there be more?
Despite the supposed odds though, the individuals presented in the documentary talk about how Hearing Voices support groups gave them a new hope, through talking to others with shared experiences and approaching their voices to see from where they emerge.
It’s not uncommon for voice-hearers to have experienced traumatic events. Somewhere between 70–90% of voice-hearers have had trauma at some point in their lives. Many voice-hearers have even reported hearing the voices of their past abusers.
Their stories make them stronger.
As long as people have a place to talk about their voices — a way to frame them — then it doesn’t matter which framework is taken.
Cindy Marty Hadge was one of the panelists at the screening event as well as one of the individuals in the documentary. Cindy has made a living traveling the country, training facilitators and teaching a new way of understanding unusual experiences, like hearing voices and seeing visions.
According to Cindy, healing from voices comes down to having “meaning, purpose, and connection.”
Since Hearing Voices Network makes “no presumption of illness” of its attendees, people who walk through the door of a support group, are free to interpret their experiences in whatever way personally makes sense to them.
“They could believe [their voices are] aliens, they could believe it’s chakra openings, spiritual or traumatic reasons,” Cindy tells the audience during the panel discussion, “As long as people have a place to talk about their voices — a way to frame them — then it doesn’t matter which framework is taken. It’s helpful to talk about what they’re going through and look at it.”
Alongside Cindy Hadge; author and advocate, Claire Bien also spoke of her own experiences and how it transformed her outlook. Cindy and Claire spoke before and after, introducing the film as well as answering questions.
Hearing Voices Coordinator, Skye, also chimed in with their own experiences, emphasizing the need to provide support, regardless of how an individual relates to their voices: “How do we give you the tools to live your life? That’s what it’s about.”
Claire Bien told her story of vicious voices who gossiped about her as well as benevolent ones, who protected her. This brings another element of voice-hearing to light: that they’re not always negative.
It’s not against Psychiatry-it’s for informed consent.
Most people diagnosed with mental health diagnoses have never committed a serious act of violence and are, in fact, are more likely to have been the victims of violence themselves.
Beyond Possible is a short film, less than a half an hour in duration, but through watching the real life stories of individuals with lived experience of recovery, it drives home the point that there is more than one way for voice-hearers to relate to their experiences. While the traditional psychiatric establishment may hold a monopoly over our cultural narrative, it’s not the only path to understanding what voice-hearers deal with.
Panelists also discussed the issue of taking medication. Some people do, some don’t. Ultimately, it’s up to the individual, who has a right to informed consent on whatever they put in their bodies. Many people are helped into recovery by traditional means, of medication and talk therapy, there’s still a disturbing history of psychiatrists detaining voice-hearers, sometimes for dubious reasons.
Hearing Voices Network takes no position on medications or pharmaceutical interventions — it’s always up to the individual.
While some people may think coercive treatment is necessary, it’s important to note that most people diagnosed with mental health diagnoses have never committed a serious act of violence and are, in fact, are more likely to have been the victims of violence themselves.
You don’t really know stigma… until you do.
Voice-hearing is among the most stigmatized human experiences yet it’s, statistically, as common as being left-handed. About one in ten people have heard, do hear or will have some sort of voice-hearing experience at some point in their lives — One of the most common is hearing the voice of a deceased loved one shortly after passing.
The stigma only makes growing the community even more imperative. People need to feel connected in order to heal.
I caught up with Theresa, one of the attendees in the audience, after the film’s discussion. She told me she just got hired to work at a residential program and expressed excitement about the event, “there was so much common sense brought up tonight about being supportive and making people feel safe. Making sure they’re aware that they’re not the only ones.”
Hearing Voices groups have become more mainstream over recent years and even have affiliate groups in hospital and clinical settings. While more clinicians become more educated and even run their own groups in otherwise traditional settings, stigma is still alive and well.
Theresa and I discussed how her coworkers were skeptical, “When I told people I was coming to this event, they gave me an ‘uh-oh’ look.” She said, “[They think if] you hear voices, there’s something wrong with you. We have to get rid of that and dissolve that stigma.”
Embracing the two virtues: openness and curiosity.
Rather than judge or become afraid, we can learn to say: ‘Please tell me more’.
As someone with her own lived experience, I would love for these sort of films and discussions to be allowed in more clinical settings. Since Hearing Voices takes no position on pharmaceutical interventions, this model can be used alongside the traditional one, as many people have taken this adjunct approach as well.
This is part of what makes Hearing Voices model so interesting and has ignited my passion when I’ve been a facilitator — it’s how this approach upholds and nurtures anyone’s interpretation, as long as it makes sense to them.
Beyond Possible brings this refreshing approach to the forefront and has the power to educate anyone who wants to know more.
When we sit and listen to each other’s viewpoints, allowing for many different shades of variation, we realize that it only makes sense to talk about our experiences and ask questions when someone presents something that’s different from the norm. Rather than judge or become afraid, we can learn to say: Please tell me more.
And we don’t just say it — we actually listen. We listen with openness and curiosity. No judgement.
No matter what approach you choose to take on hearing voices, openness and curiosity are always a good start.