A Look at the Hearing Voices Movement

The hearing voices movement: graphic of a head with dialogue bubbles inside it

The International Hearing Voices Movement (InterVoice) seeks to normalize, depathologize, and destigmatize the experience voice-hearing, as well as provide support to people who hear voices, see visions, etc. InterVoice is based in the UK. There are also 28 national networks, including the Hearing Voices Network in the UK and Hearing Voices Network USA.

The Hearing Voices perspective

The movement believes that recovery is possible. The UK network’s website says:

“At the Hearing Voices Network, we use the word recovery to mean ‘living the life you choose, not the life others choose for you’ (whether those others are family, friends, workers or voices). Many people who hear voices simply don’t need to recover – they are already living lives that they love. The voices might enhance their wellbeing, or their experiences may simply not detract from it.”

The InterVoice website identifies several basic assumptions on which they operate, including:

  • “Hearing voices is a normal though unusual and personal variation of human experience.
  • Hearing voices makes sense in relation to personal life experiences.
  • The problem is not hearing voices but the difficulty to cope with the experience.
  • People who hear voices can cope with these experiences by accepting and owning their voices.”

Hearing Voices mutual support groups aim to demystify voices and “build up a relationship and acknowledge the voices as part of ordinary life” (Intervoice), and develop coping skills to relate to voices more effectively.

InterVoice also puts on an annual congress. They have a research committee, which is chaired by Dr. Eleanor Longden, a psychosis researcher who herself has a diagnosis of schizophrenia (she’s also given a TED Talk on voice-hearing).

Hearing Voices and Psychiatry

The UK Hearing Voices Network has a Position Statement on DSM 5 & Psychiatric Diagnosis. They criticize the DSM-5 as being “scientifically unsound” for reasons like lack of objective tests and drug company involvement, which is basically the old GlaxoSmithKline creating social anxiety disorder to market Paxil kind of argument. The lack of objective tests is a common anti-psychiatry criticism, but try telling that to people with conditions like fibromyalgia and ME/CFS, who have to fight to get their conditions taken seriously because there aren’t objective tests for them.

They oppose the emphasis on antipsychotic medication in treating psychosis, saying that “medication does nothing to address underlying difficulties.” Except the nature of chronic conditions is that medications, or any other form of treatment, don’t provide a cure, they manage symptoms. That doesn’t mean you should throw treatment out the window. The position paper also suggests that being labelled with a diagnosis leads to discrimination. At the same time, though, the behaviour of some people with untreated psychosis, such as verbally responding to their auditory hallucinations, can be seen as stereotype-consistent, so that’s not particularly helpful either.

In a separate area of their website, they identify the UK-based Critical Psychiatry Network as being sympathetic to their approach, and acknowledge that medications are helpful for some people. I’m guessing it’s different people writing on different areas of the website more than a truly united front.

How helpful are they likely to be?

The impression I’ve gotten from the various things I’ve heard about the movement is that they’re made up of a fairly wide range of people, from those who are actively engaged in mainstream psychiatric treatment to those who are pretty strongly anti-psychiatry. Even the mix of materials on the UK network’s site seems to reflect these differences in perspective.

I can definitely see this being helpful for a certain subgroup of people, but it does seem to skim over the fact that voices can be extremely distressing and unwanted for some people. Also, while the content of voices may be meaningful for some people in terms of pointing to unresolved trauma or other issues, to suggest that’s the case for all voice-hearers kind of reminds me of the line of thinking that all/most mental disorders are the result of trauma. Overgeneralizing probably isn’t helpful for those people who don’t experience their voices as being reasonable in some way.

Have you ever come across the Hearing Voices Movement? What’s your impression?

The post Let’s Talk About Psychosis is the hub for all psychosis-related content on Mental Health @ Home.

13 thoughts on “A Look at the Hearing Voices Movement”

  1. Thanks for sharing this Ashley, I’d never hear of it before! It’s always interesting to hear a new perspective.

  2. I’ve heard of this movement, although I didn’t find a lot of value in it. Hearing voices is distressing far more than going on a ride at the park is. In any event, I think it’s safe to say that you’d be better off not having this happen vs. having it happen.

  3. And then there are those of us who are clairaudient – I prefer to respond to outloud but it can be off-putting if I am among other people….

  4. I hadn’t come across the Hearing Voices Network or InterVoice before. I like that they’ve acknowledged that hearing voices can be part of the human experience and not a problem per se for some people, it may not interfere with their lives or cause a negative impact. We tend to see things like this as being “crazy” and something to be “fixed” because of stereotyping and the link to sociopathy. When news stories report a murder who heard voices that told him to kill that innocent person in an horrific way, they scaremonger and fan the flames of fear against mental illness and hearing voices generally.

    That said, you can’t overlook the way in which hearing voices can be incredibly detrimental. But not just in the case of someone committing murder claiming a voice told them to. It must impact daily life, work, relationships, everything, to differing extents for people. I suppose that while I like the movement trying to normalise and suggest it’s not always something that needs “fixing”, there should be just as much emphasis on how the condition can be detrimental and terrifying for the people dealing with it.

    While I’m not totally averse to the DSM-5, I do see where they’re coming from with the criticism. I’ve no idea on medications and treatment for managing such issues or if it’s possible to “get rid” of the voices if they’re problematic, but I imagine, like with everything, it’s a unique individual experience so some people will respond to medications, so won’t, and a more holistic, multidisciplinary approach is typically more likely to be beneficial. xx

    1. For managing psychotic symptoms, meds tend to play a more critical role than other than with other types of symptoms, although certainly other things can help, and some people’s voices are more distressing than other people’s and effective treatment becomes important for quality of life.

      I think there are probably a lot of misconceptions out in the world about command hallucinations. One is that such hallucinations are linked to sociopathy or psychopathy, which isn’t the case; those are personality disturbances, not psychotic illnesses. Someone who experiences command hallucinations really needs to be on meds. In Canada, at least, someone who was so psychotic that they killed someone because of command hallucinations would typically be found not criminally responsible, as they would be considered insane if they were unable to recognize at the time of the offense that what they were doing was wrong. I’m guessing the UK is similar, as much of our law is based on yours, but I know in the US they’re pretty reluctant to consider insanity.

  5. This is interesting. I wasn’t aware of much of this and appreciate this information. I do think, in theory, helping people who hear voices understand and accept themselves seems supportive and possibly healing, but worry (as you point out) that because there are different origins that much might be missed in treating the individual and improving that individual’s quality of life.

  6. I don’t have experience with the Hearing Voices Movement, but I do have experience with hearing voices and associated paranoia. I don’t take a strong stance in the anti-/psychiatry argument because I think both approaches are extremely important.

    During my episode, I was prescribed risperidone to get “my head above water,” and the only credit I can give it to that effect is that the side effects were so awful, they distracted me (slightly) from the voices by giving me something else to struggle against. I got off the meds, and my solution wound up being years of self-imposed practice, sort of a cognitive-behavioral approach, noticing my triggers (grocery store, public transportation, things done at home) and leaning into them to push myself. It took a long time, but I’m in a stable place now. That solution isn’t for everyone, but it was what I needed.

    I’m writing a novel based on my episode, which has been its own therapeutic experience. I realized that while I probably have more in common with the “trauma-induced” contingent of voice hearers, my trauma has no specific event or external catalyst. I’d chalk it up to personality-plus-societal influences (emphasis on personality, but let’s just say the world we live in didn’t help—and this was in 2013!).

    So I’m glad that the HVM is vocal about approaches that don’t include diagnosis or medication, because for everyone to “get the help they need,” the emphasis should be literally on what “they” specifically need. I think some people wind up trying pill after pill with no relief because the problem, while not tied to a specific traumatic event, could be a personal/societal trauma that pills can’t fix. Anyway, thank you for sharing this. Here’s to further learning and destigmatization.

    1. Yeah, trying to treat everyone with certain kinds of experiences as if they’re all the same is unlikely to work very well, whether those experiences involve voices or something else.

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