Family and friends who truly love and want to help the voice hearer in their lives are often encouraged by the mental health system to hold beliefs and take actions that alienate and harm the very person they want to help. We are offering families a better way
It is widely believed that the only appropriate response to hearing voices and other unusual experiences is to deny and silence them by whatever means necessary.
In reality, hearing voices isn’t so unusual. Various studies agree that it is (at least) as common as left handedness (and much more so in certain cultures where it is more broadly accepted and even, in some cases, revered). ‘Hearing voices’ is considered an umbrella term, and also encompasses seeing visions, as well as smells, touch, tastes, and unusual beliefs that may not be common or shared.
The Hearing Voices approach offers a non-pathologizing, open way of understanding and supporting people through the experience of hearing voices. It is different from ‘care as usual’ in several ways.
First and foremost, hearing voices experiences are seen as real.
What ‘real’ means in this context can be hard for some to understand, making it easy to fall into a condescending, ‘pat on the head’ kind of response. One way to think about what ‘real’ means here is to consider the phenomena of the color changing dress that went viral across the Internet a few years back.
Facilitator Cindy Marty Hadge: “You don’t have to be alone in this.”
Whether people saw the same exact picture of the dress as blue and black or white and gold depended purely on who they were. There was even a scientific explanation as to why. And yet, the explanations made what each person saw no less real to them.
Second, the Hearing Voices approach accepts that a person’s goal may not be to get rid of the voices, that the voices can be positive, and that they are generally meaningful within the context of a person’s life and past experiences.
Hearing Voices support groups are the centerpiece of the approach. They are widely available throughout the United Kingdom and many other countries, and they are just taking hold in the United States.
In an effort to support the recent growth, Hearing Voices USA www.hearingvoicesuas.org) recently updated its Charter (http://www.hearingvoicesusa.org/hvn-usa-charter), providing a strengthened framework for the groups in this country and opening with the three freedoms that are absolutely key to what the support looks like. These include:
- Freedom to interpret experiences in any way, not just from an illness framework.
- Freedom to challenge social norms – including gender norms or other ideas about how we are “supposed to be” in the world.
- Freedom to talk about anything – not just voices and visions.
It is no mistake that “no assumption of illness” tops the list of the freedoms. As detailed in a 2016 article by Western Massachusetts Recovery Learning Community Director, Sera Davidow, ‘False Arguments, Part III, Why Do People Hear Voices‘, there are many possible explanations. And, ultimately, what is most important is not what society or doctors believe to be true, but whether a particular framework is useful in helping an individual cope with their voices.
While Hearing Voices groups are taking hold across the nation, family and friends are all too often left with only the supports that continue to convey the same old medicalized view. This creates numerous problems such as increased barriers for voice hearers whose families are fearful of them trying something different than what the doctor ordered, and lack of access to the information that would allow family and friends to begin to shift themselves.
Parents and others deserve to have their own fears, frustration, feelings of guilt, and pain heard, and to be supported to create opportunities to build up – rather than tear down – their relationship with their loved one. As Maya Angelou was once quoted as saying, “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.” Parents, and other family and friends, need space to reach that latter point.
To this end, we are pleased to introduce the new on-line Hearing Voices group for family and friends. This group provides a space where people can discuss navigating the experience of supporting loved ones who may hear voices, have visions, or have a variety of other non-consensus experiences and beliefs. The group’s primary focus is supporting family members and friends to examine their own challenges in being present for such situations and relationships.
The group operates in keeping with the values of the HVN-USA Charter, meeting every Monday for 90 minutes beginning at 8:00pm Eastern (7:00pm Central, 6:00pm Mountain, 5:00pm Pacific). To receive instructions for joining the meeting, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org indicating your name and confirming that you are seeking support as a family member or friend of someone with extreme experiences.
Our two facilitators, David Adams and Cindy Marty Hadge, are both parents, and Cindy is also a voice hearer and national Hearing Voices trainer.
David Adams: David is a graduate of HVN-USA’s facilitator training, and a group facilitator for the Central Ohio Hearing Voices Network. He is a parent and he has a sibling’s experience of voice hearing and non-consensus beliefs.
Cindy Marty Hadge: Cindy is a voice hearer who is a trainer for HVN USA and has facilitated HVN groups for years. Cindy is a parent as well and has experienced supporting her five children through a variety extreme experiences.