Hearing voices is normal
> Auditory hallucination is experienced by one in eight of the population, and most commonly by those who are over the age of 60
there or I was imagining it.
There are many ways in which hearing voices varies, aside from frequency. Some people hear only bad voices. Others hear only good voices, supporting and reassuring them. Many hear both good and bad.
For some the voices are of people they know. Some hear just the one voice, others hear many.
For some, the voices start as imaginary childhood friends, and for others, the first voice arrives much later in life.
A common feature, however, is that most voice hearers, when asked, ascribe meaning to their voices, and reject the notion that they are meaningless expressions of a chemical imbalance or some other supposed biological dysfunction.
Perhaps the most obvious, and common, example of voices being meaningful are studies showing that most people over 60 who lose a life partner, will hear or see their partner soon after their death. Negative voices are often related to adverse life events.
Four studies of adults using mental health services found that the content of at least half of the voices of people who were physically or sexually abused as children was related to the abuse.
Other studies report examples of the voices being the abuser.
One study described someone who was suffering ongoing sexual abuse by a violent relative, who heard the relative’s voice telling the person to commit suicide.
It is usually more helpful in these situations to ask if the person would like to talk about what happened to him/her, rather than dismiss the voice as a meaningless symptom of brain disease.
There are countless historical examples of voices where the person hearing them is convinced they have meaning – Jesus and Joan of Arc among the most famous.
However, the notion that voices are random expressions of a diseased brain, devoid of meaning, is a recent creation, restricted to cultures where a medical model of human distress dominates.
When I was living in New Zealand, a colleague interviewed 80 Maori people about what causes people to hear voices.
As one respondent put it: “For me, hearing voices is like saying hello to your family in the morning, it is nothing unusual.”
An exciting development in the last two decades is the emergence, all over the world, of peer-support groups for voice hearers.
The members of these groups have much to teach us mental health professionals, especially about how to listen respectfully, rather than dismissing people’s experiences as symptoms of an imagined illness which has no reliability or validity, and trying to suppress those experiences with psychiatric drugs.
Voices, like dreams, sometimes carry important messages about a problem that needs addressing, such as trauma earlier in one’s life.
Perhaps mental health professionals need to ask what the voices are saying a bit more often, and as voice hearer Eleanor Longden explains in her TED talk, they should also ask: “What happened to you?” – The Independent