Enhancing learning and teaching about mental health across the disciplines
This film features three people who have heard voices for most of their lives and still do. Kate, Bob and Shaun all work with Peter Bullimore as part of the Sheffield Hearing Voices Network and the National Paranoia Network. As part of this work they talk publicly about their experiences of voice hearing, of psychosis and of the psychiatric system. They do this in order to demonstrate that their voices cannot be simply explained as a negative symptom of illnesses such as schizophrenia or bi-polar disorder, but that they are emotional responses to traumatic life experiences.
In 2014 I was privileged to be able to interview Kate, Bob and Shaun. The interviews were semi-structured, I wanted to ask them about four main aspects of their experiences of hearing voices:
These were based upon some of the categories in the Maastricht Interview and it might be helpful to bear these in mind when viewing the film. A good account of the Interview can be found in a paper by Dirk Corstens, Sandra Escher and Marius Romme, the people who developed the Maastricht Approach, http://www.dirkcorstens.com/maastrichtapproach/.
In editing the recordings I had made, I wanted to retain the authenticity of individual narratives, but also show the ways in which their experiences might be shared. As a result this film is not edited to make viewing easy, so do be prepared to listen for a full hour.
The following notes may also be useful as a means of finding your way back to particular parts at a later date. I hope you find these notes and the film informative and interesting.
Bob Sapey, 7th November 2015
For as long as people have heard voices there have been differences of opinion as to their nature and cause.
There have been spiritual explanations in which people may claim to be hearing the voices of gods and angels and maybe the voices of the devil and other bad spirits.
This has often led people into conflict with the leaders of organised religions, who have felt threatened by such direct relationships with their gods.
There have also been medical explanations and since the late 19th century these have focused on the brain. Throughout the 20th century the idea that voices are caused by mental illnesses, particularly by schizophrenia, has come to dominate medical knowledge. In this view, voices are auditory hallucinations that need to be suppressed with anti psychotic medication.
However, since the late 1970s another idea has found much favour with people who hear voices, that their voices are a psychological response to life experiences, particularly childhood trauma.
In this approach, people try to understand the meaning of their voices and then negotiate ways of living with them.
This approach has become quite influential and in December 2014 the British Psychological Society said that,
Hearing voices or feeling paranoid are common experiences which can often be a reaction to trauma, abuse or deprivation. Calling them symptoms of mental illness, psychosis or schizophrenia is only one way of thinking about them, with advantages and disadvantages.
Gail Hornstein, an American psychologist who describes herself as being ‘as interested in patients’ experiences as in doctors’ theories’ has said that,
We are now living at a time when there is a systematic alternative to understanding madness and treatment based entirely on first hand experiences. It offers a powerful challenge to our taken-for-granted ideas and has the potential to be more successful than traditional approaches in helping people to cope with psychotic experiences.
As a person who has never heard voices, I was interested to learn more so I spoke with Kate, Bob and Shaun, all of whom have long experiences of voice hearing. In this film they each talk about their experiences of hearing voices, the reasons for their voices and the ways in which they have learned to live with them.
This part of the film starts with Kate describing her voices and her beliefs about where they come from. Her voices started as helpful until about the age of 7, but then became threatening. Kate describes the way her voices increased in number to hundreds and then thousands. She associates the increase in the numbers and nastiness of the voices with punishments and abuse she experienced as a child and teenager.
Next Bob describes how his voices started as an imaginary friend in childhood. Again he associates this to sexual abuse he experienced as a child. Bob describes how talking about his voices in the Hearing Voices Network has recently helped him to deal with his voices. Bob describes how the HVN group has helped him so much more than any medicines he has taken. He talks of losing 15 years of his life through being subdued by medication.
Shaun talks about how he cannot control his internal voice as he might control his thoughts. He has heard voices since childhood. At first they were just commenting on what he was doing and made him feel protected. Later, following abuse by his father, the content of the voices changed and they became more aggressive. Sometimes he finds his voices amusing and entertaining. Shaun describes his ‘grizzly’ voice which is very loud and controlling.
Kate describes her experiences of abuse by her mother, her grandmother, bullying by children at school and the way her voices are related to this. She describes the way teachers and other adults failed to ever listen to her. Despite considerable abuse, Kate describes herself as lucky to only be hearing voices compared to her cousin who was brain damaged by abuse.
In addition to being abused as a child, Bob describes how at the age of 15, witnessing an ice-cream van running over a child’s head led to an increase in his voices. He was unable to talk to his parents about his voices or his abuse. Bob describes how as an adult, talking to his voices led to people thinking badly of him.
Shaun thinks his voices may have started as a form of protection when he was being abused. He feels that the softest voice has characteristics of his grandad. He thinks his voices reflect his emotions. He thinks his voices are not a problem, rather his reaction to them can be.
Kate describes other people’s responses to her when she tells them about hearing voices. She talks about doctors, police and nurses as lacking any appreciation of what she was experiencing and sometimes denying that her experiences are real. This resulted several times in her being compulsorily detained and forcibly medicated.
Shaun talks about his experience of psychiatric services and how, because he is 6 foot 3 and diagnosed as having schizophrenia, he has been viewed as dangerous, forcibly medicated and detained in a forensic unit at the request of the police. Shaun now feels that hearing voices is a positive experience and that instead of trying to eradicate the voices, psychiatric services could help people to learn more about them.
Bob has a much more negative experience of hearing voices and talking about them in the HVN group has helped him a lot. He doesn’t think the psychiatric professionals understand what voice hearers are going through and they could learn a lot from the HVN group. Bob is preparing to talk about his experiences to a large group at a conference.
Shaun introduces himself to the Paranoia Network conference at Manchester in 2014.
Kate explains why she is prepared to talk about her abuse and her voices in order to give others hope, rather than them being left with the idea that they have an incurable disease. She goes on to describe how she has been able to help others.
 Executive Summary of Understanding Psychosis and Schizophrenia, edited by Anna Cooke and published in 2014 by the British Psychological Society
 From her speech at the mhhe conference at Lancaster University, Living and Learning: Learning and Teaching: Mental Health in Higher Education, 30-31 March 2010.
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