Hearing Voices: Resources Outside Traditional Mental Health

Hearing voices may not always be a sign of pathology.

Take Daniel Smith‘s book Muses, Madmen, and Prophets: Hearing Voices and the Borders of Sanity, which has an origin that’s personal. Both his father and grandfather heard voices

Today there’s more support than ever for those who hear voices, much of it largely outside the mental health system. Smith has also written, for example, about the Hearing Voices Network (H.V.N.), which aims to help those who seek info and support regarding their voices.

H.V.N., which openly challenges the standard psychiatric relationship of expert physician and psychotic patient, might be said to take the consumer movement in mental health care to its logical endpoint. Although H.V.N. groups meet in a variety of settings — from psychiatric wards to churches to the organization’s headquarters — all must be run by, or there must be active plans for them to be run by, voice-hearers themselves. What’s more, H.V.N. groups must accept all interpretations of auditory hallucinations as equally valid. If an individual comes to a group claiming that he is hearing the voice of the queen of England, and he finds this belief useful, no attempt is made to divest him of it, but rather to figure out what it means to him.

Gail A. Hornstein, a psychology professor at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, started one of the first U.S. branches. She’s the author of Agnes’s Jacket: A Psychologist’s Search for the Meanings of Madness (2009). Agnes (Richter) was a voice hearer and mental patient in 1890’s Germany who refused to be silenced: she managed to sew her story into a jacket she created out of the uniform she was made to wear. At the time, however, her text was deemed indecipherable.

H.V.N. believes that not all voice-hearers are always suffering from a mental illness. The organization takes two basic positions not in line with the thoughts of many mental health experts (New York Times Magazine):

The first is that many more people hear voices, and hear many more kinds of voices, than is usually assumed. The second is that auditory hallucination — or ‘voice-hearing,’ H.V.N.’s more neutral preference — should be thought of not as a pathological phenomenon in need of eradication but as a meaningful, interpretable experience, intimately linked to a hearer’s life story and, more commonly than not, to unresolved personal traumas.

Click on this link for more info about the various types of voices it’s possible to hear. Sometimes, by the way, a “voice” is not so much even a voice, but something less clear than that.

Not everyone is bothered by hearing his or her voices. Part of the philosophy of H.V.N. is that if the voices are distressing, however, one can work on learning how to live and cope with them. In fact, the 2009 book Living With Voices: 50 Stories of Recovery, by Marius Romme, offers true accounts of those who’ve come to do just that.

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