Hearing voices is a pretty common human experience and research estimates that around 10% of the population hears voices – and these voices can be both compelling and problematic. In fact, hearing voices is one of the main criteria for a diagnosis of schizophrenia, among other mental illnesses.
Because of the association between hearing voices and mental illnesses, hearing voices can be a incredibly frightening experience – and for good reason! For people like Eleanor Longden, hearing voices can be a terrifying and debilitating journey, where the treatment approaches trend toward pharmaceutical silencers.
In a recent Ted Talk, Eleanor Longden describes her harrowing journey from a functioning student to an institutionalized schizophrenic with no hope for a future of relative “sanity”. Until she met a psychiatrist who encouraged her to listen to what the voices had to say and to try to develop a relationship with the voices instead of being scared of them – and this changed her life forever. This is a great 14 minute talk that could change the way one thinks about the experience of hearing voices. To view, please click the link: Ted Talk- Eleanor Longden: The Voices in my Head.
In fact, she started a global network for people who hear voices called “Intervoice.”
Here’s what Intervoice says about hearing voices:
“Because hearing voices is a much stigmatised experience we wanted to create a safe place where you can find out more about hearing voices and to create an interactive online community where you can let us know about your point of view or experience.
We have put together the most extensive international resource on hearing voices you can find on the web. This information includes both ways of overcoming the difficulties faced by people who hear voices, as well as the more positive aspects of the experience and its cultural and historical significance.
Here, you will find a very different way of thinking about the meaning of hearing voices.
We understand “voices” to be real and meaningful, something that is experienced by a significant minority of people, including many who have no problems living with their voices. Our research shows that to hear voices is not the consequence of a diseased brain, but more akin to a variation in human behaviour, like being left-handed. It is not so much the voices that are the problem, but the difficulties that some people have in coping with them.”
These perspectives about voice hearing are a radical departure from current western mental health understandings and practices- although the idea is not a new one. For instance, William Glasser, who developed Choice Theory states,
“Choice Theory posits that most mental illness is, in fact, an expression of unhappiness and that we are able to learn how to choose alternate behaviors that will result in greater satisfaction. Reality Therapy is the Choice Theory-based counseling process focussed on helping clients to learn to make those choices.”
One of the most promising messages from these pieces, is reflected in the belief about our innate capacity to heal ourselves, given the appropriate supports and tools. And that no matter what mental health issues we may be struggling with, or the kinds of supports and treatments we choose, the most important thing is the actual act of choice.
“The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me. The last of one’s freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance.”
― Viktor E. Frankl