The Hearing Voices Network (HVN) is a grass roots movement that started in the Netherlands in the 80’s, as a collaboration between mental health professionals and people with lived experience. It grew into a movement with groups and networks all over the world. Very different beliefs, experiences, and ideas are united by a set of values that have developed from a single, stunning discovery that voice hearing is is a common human experience, often linked to trauma, and sometimes helpful and reassuring. A psychiatrist Marius Romme, and distressed voice hearer Patsy Hague who was seeing him as a patient explored alternative understandings of voices and began this investigation into what we thought we knew. This was a profound shift from the accepted wisdom that voices are meaningless hallucinations, signifying severe mental illness, and that only through silencing and blocking them out could people be returned to mental health. The reality is that many people hear voices but do not mention it to doctors or friends for fear of being thought of as mad, that many people’s voices have meaningful things to say, and that a person can hear voices and experience no other symptoms of mental illness. The Hearing Voices Movement approaches have developed into a number of key principles in order to support distressed and troubled people to find their own path to hope and meaning, and champion the civil rights of people who hear voices. Some of the key approaches of the HVM are:
Working in partnership
Experts by training (workers and academics etc) and people who are experts by experience (having lived it!) are encouraged to work together in pairs or groups to run groups, deliver presentations, and all other resources. The experiences of those who have a foot in both world are also valued! The perspectives of both the experts by experience and experts by training should be included in all discussions, planning, and delivery. Collaboration and partnership as equals are key to the hearing voices movement.
Bridging the personal and professional
We believe that we do not need to maintain a worker/psychiatric survivor divide and that such division breaks a community into ranks or classes in ways that are harmful. While boundaries are extremely important, they are the usual boundaries of developing friendships.
The process is simple and involves all the members (experts of experience and experts by training) committing themselves to bridging the worker/psychiatric survivor divide and developing real relationships with each other, as a result long term friendships have developed. This is more easily accomplished than might be imagined, having common cause and placing a stress on the equal value of everyone’s participation tends to breakdown the worker/psychiatric survivor or service user divide and gives space for a very different way of working and being together.
Incorporating the knowledge of experts by experience
We recognise people who hear voices have significant knowledge, although often have few opportunities to disseminate their knowledge. A key aim of many in the Hearing Voices Movement is to develop experiential knowledge and to disseminate this with the objective of transforming mental health care to recovery and resilience oriented support. In our view experiential knowledge is equal to scientific or academic knowledge. Each person is an expert in their own life. Persons with “psychiatric histories” own this knowledge and its value, including financial value should be recognised. For example, when voice hearers speak at workshops and conferences, we aim to ensure they are paid the same fees as professional speakers (for instance psychiatrists).
Participation helps individual recovery processes
This, most especially, includes experts by training. Participation in the hearing voices movement by experts by experience has proved to be beneficial to those involved including the experts by training, in effect the community development and educational approach has proved to have had unintended therapeutic value. For example experts by training have revealed that they have heard voices for the first time and experts by experience have been able to support them. Reclaiming shared humanity from the roles of ‘professional’ and ‘patient’ are important for both groups.
We repeatedly point out that we work together with people with histories of so called severe mental health problems, “the real patients”, in the language of mainstream mental health. This is significant for two reasons, firstly this is because articulate, coping voice hearers tend to be written out of the story as unlike “real patients” and secondly because, although people often participate in a voice hearing group with a “diagnosis” as their identity, the process of membership often leads to significant change in peoples’ perception of themselves as contributors and as whole people.
Encouraging diverse understandings
A key approach is the focus on seeking to change societies attitudes about hearing voices and the belief that this will lead to a change in psychiatry (we use the analogy with homosexuality and psychiatry). Personal, clinical, political, and spiritual understandings of voices are treated as having equal validity. The emphasis is upon individuality – how each person understands their voices is legitimate, and what is helpful for each person is often different. We encourage people to be accepting of a diversity of experiences and approaches to voices, and to share ideas, experiences, and resources without pressuring anyone to see things their way. When the networks meet they invite presentations from anthropologists, spiritualists, psychiatrists, psychologists, voice hearers and so on with a diversity of perspectives. We often use poetry, music, dance to instil a creative atmosphere at the meetings and enjoy a meal together at the end of meetings. We value and recognise participation in meetings with tokens of gratitude such as flowers and small gifts. We prefer to also meet in non-Medical settings, often in “valued” buildings, most memorably perhaps was a meeting held in the ancient Town hall in Florence.
Some people don’t hear voices, but instead see visions, or smell, taste, or perceive things that others can’t, and/or have unusual beliefs. People who have any experiences that are typically labelled psychotic, hallucinations, or delusions are welcome at Hearing Voices groups.
For more information and a video about the Hearing Voices Movement, see Voices Matter by Mad in America, or visit the International Hearing Voices Network Intervoice. Here’s an interesting article in The Times about how Hearing Voices groups work for people.