Not all voice hearers commit violent acts

Better minds better living with Dr. Yansie Rolston Monday, June 12 2017

LAST week I read the newspaper articles and subsequent online posts about the teenager who had murdered his brother after “hearing voices in his head”.

What was astonishing was the lack of compassion for a family who were grieving for a deceased loved one, distressed with the fact that it was another much-loved family member who had inflicted the fatal blow, and trying to come to terms with his arrest. Instead, most of the comments centred around questioning the validity of the teenager’s claim to hearing voices and the severity of the punishment he should receive.

Hearing voices –previously called auditory hallucinations, is when someone has a sensation of hearing an internal voice that isn’t identified as their own or of someone, much the same as hearing a voice in the normal way through your ears, with the difference being that the “voice” has no physical cause. (The Hearing Voices Network) Voice hearing may or may not be an indication of mental illness such as psychosis, schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder or severe depression, which the teenager’s family indicated he had a history of, but there are also other reasons why people hear voices, such as: The brain being partly in a dreaming state while falling asleep and waking up Sleep deprivation causing sensory experiences that cannot be easily explained Being extremely hungry or thirsty causing hallucinatory feelings Physical illness accompanied by a high temperature and delirium Side effects of some prescription or recreational drugs Bereavement and grief – hearing the voice of a loved one who recently died Having been abused or bullied and subsequently hearing the voice of the abuser taunting you Traumatic disorders – PTSD or dissociative disorders Spiritual experiences which religious literature consider as being divinely or demonically-inspired or possessed; According to Mental Health Foundation between five per cent and 28 per cent of the population hear voices that other people don’t, and for some people those voices are always present. However, a large number only have brief episodes of voice hearing triggered by extreme periods of stress or trauma. (A study done in 2013 found as many as 70 per cent of participants reported hearing voices after a significantly traumatic experience).

For some hearers, the voices can have a negative impact on the way in which they go about their day-to-day lives, especially when the voices tell the hearer to cause harm to others or themselves, or to commit murder such as the teenager whose voice told him to stab his brother. Unfortunately, those attention-grabbing, sensationalised stories are the ones that make the headlines compounding the deep-seated stigma and ignorance around hearing voices. But it’s important to know that not all voices have negative consequences –some impart advice, are inspirations, provide companionship, furnish humour and wit, or are comforting defence mechanisms in times of overwhelming emotional crisis.

The phenomenal Jacqui Dillion an outspoken advocate, campaigner for trauma informed approaches to madness and distress, and someone who has shared her tremendous wealth of knowledge and experiences of hearing voices with me, was one of the people featured in the incredibly powerful and moving BBC documentary Why Did I Go Mad. It followed the story of three people living with voices, hallucinations and paranoia, to explore what causes the phenomena and provided incredible first-hand insight into their experiences. In it, Prof Swaran Singh also shed light on the connections between sustained inequality experienced by way of social/racial discrimination and exclusion, and its damaging effects on mental health.

Not all voice hearers will go on to commit acts of violence, it’s actually only a very tiny minority who do. Instead the vast majority are just people going about their dayto- day lives while trying to cope with their voices. But alas, inherent stigma and prejudice means that many people will be uncomfortable around someone who hears voices, but a little knowledge goes a long way, so instead of demonising hearers it would be more helpful to increase the awareness and understanding of the condition.

Remember, more often than not, voice hearing is a human response to adversity or trauma – all the more reason to exercise respect and empathy. Further information and resources are available at www.intervoiceonline.org; www.

voicecollective.co.uk; or www.hearing- voices.org.

Dr Yansie Rolston FRSA is a UKbased disability and mental health specialist advisor. She is a social strategist and trainer who works internationally at various levels of government, business and civil society.

Contact her at yr@efficacyeva. com

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