|Lecture, given at International Conference "Dignity
and Recovery" at the University College Cork, run by the Cork
Advocacy Network, Ireland, 11 February 2005; in: Journal of
Critical Psychology, Counselling and Psychotherapy (U.K.),
Vol. 6 (2006), No. 1, pp. 23-25. Powerpoint
Making Common Sense of Voices
Many historically important people claimed to have heard voices
that acted as their inspiration: Socrates, Moses, Mohammed, Joan
of Arc, Teresa of Avila, Carl Jung, Anthony Hopkins and Ghandi.
Today there are still 3 to 5 per cent who hear voices and many
of them cope well with their voiceswithout psychiatric intervention.
It has been known for some time that a high percentage of the
general population experience brief and occasional voices, particularly
at times of bereavement, divorce and separation. This is also
the case for people in extreme circumstances, for instance, 80
per cent of those who have endured torture hear voices during
their ordeal (Amnesty International) and the phenomenon is also
seen amongst long-distance yachtsmen (Bennett, 1972). In cases
like these, there is no evidence of the presence of mental illnessindeed, often quite the contrary.
Nevertheless psychiatrists neglect these facts and they still
regard hearing voices as auditory hallucinations and in many cases
(80 per cent) as a symptom of "schizophrenia." Traditionally,
the usual treatment for hearing voices is to administer psychiatric
drugs for the reduction of delusions and hallucinations, but not
everyone responds well to this treatment. Up to 50 per cent of
people with a diagnosis of schizophrenia still hear voices when
treated with medication.
Psychiatrists have many theories about what may cause voices,
many of them presume that it is part of a psychosis and that it
might be caused by some kind of genetic flaw. Generally though,
it is presumed that there is not a lot an individual can do for
themselves to cope with the voices. Professionals are taught not
to talk to voice hearers about the content of their voice experience
as this is thought to be "buying in" to the patients delusions
and not helpful. Most often professionals will seek to distract
the voice hearer from their voices. This is not a helpful approach.
To be told that the voices are just a symptom of an illness, when
those voices are as real to you as anything else in the physical
world is very disempowering. Often voice hearers try to discuss
their voices with members of the medical profession. They want
to discuss what the voices say and the significance of the voices,
but they are told voices are just a symptom of illness, to be
ignored as best they may. However, they do hear voices that talk
about things deeply relevant and meaningful to them. How can they
believe that these voices are part of an illness and of no more
significance than a sore throat? In an environment where there
is active discouragement to talk about the voices from the medical
advisors, they are being asked to accept that their own experiences
are not relevant.
The same happened to me. They told me I have a psychiatric disorder
and I received 6 different diagnoses and I received different
treatments according to the diagnosis I had at the time. For 10
years I took medication because I didn`t trust myself. I was a
victim of the voices and of the psychiatric system. My recovery
began the moment I dared to talk about my voices. I began looking
back over my life. My admission to hospital was the result of
a complex interaction of factors. One of the factors is to hear
voices and another is about the physical abuse and violence. The
voices were undoubtedly a reaction to these unhealthy circumstances.
Why was I never asked about my circumstances? Why did no one ever
ask: 'What are the voices talking about? Do you hear a man or
a woman? Do you know the triggers of your voices?' Such obvious
questions are not usually asked in psychiatry. In psychiatry it
is important to establish a diagnosis. And once this diagnosis
is found, it automatically provides answers to all questions.
From that moment on, everything you say and do is regarded as
a logical manifestation of the diagnosed disorder.
I started fighting against this interpretation because I no longer
wanted what mental health care professionals offered me. I met
more and more voice hearers and we had many meetings and discussions.
The main result of these discussions among us was that we needed
to empower ourselves. There is no one else, who will do it for
Finally we founded the German Hearing Voices Network which offers
self-help groups, conferences and trainings in how to understand
voices and how to cope with voices. It is Important to understand
the different modes of expressions used by most of us to describe
and account for our experiences, as well as the language spoken
by the voices themselves. There is often a world of symbols and
feelings involved; for example, a voice might speak of light and
dark when expressing love and aggression. We try to encourage
voice hearer to meet other people with similar experiences and
to read about hearing voices, in order to help overcome isolation
The training is primarily offered to users, ex-users and survivors
of psychiatry and people threatened by forced psychiatric treatment;
and which is also open to their supporters and interested workers
in the psychiatric field. Training is offered not only on how
to cope with voices but also on such issues as: self-help, alternatives
to psychiatry, how to deal with psychiatric drugs, empowerment
and much more.
Now the improvement in individuals who are encouraged to talk
about their voicesinstead of the suppression by synthetic chemicalsbecomes more apparent, and health professionals learn to understand
that the key to understand voices is within the content of the
voices. The message of the network is: the fact that you hear
voices is not the problem; it is the way you deal with them. And
hearing voices in its own is not a sign of mental illness.
Our attention moves from mental illness, symptoms and passivity
to recovery, possibilities and directing our own lives, but we
also take the initiative in the area of recovery, empowerment
and expertise by experience. Collectively, in the user movement,
it raises our consciousness. We claim the authorship on our own
subjectivity. The concept of recovery is a powerful one. Recovery
is a concept that allows us to develop expertise by experience.
This gives us the opportunity to overcome our patient-identity
without ignoring its reality. Talking about the voices and working
on recovery with others is a political matter. I believe that
mental health care users can help and support each other in their
recovery to a far greater extent than is currently the case.
Only learning from each others knowledge, gained from our own
experiences over so many years, will enable us to develop concepts
through which we can express ourselves. Concepts from within which
we can say: 'that is how it is, this is who I am, and that is
of help to me.' Our ideas are not only of value to us. They also
offer the possibility for professionals to learn to speak in a
new language. A language that both users and professionals understand.
Thank you very much for your attention.
Hannelore Klafki is a
founding-member of the German Netzwerk Stimmenhoeren (Hearing-Voices-Network)
and was Chair of this Network for seven years. Since 2003 she
is a board-member of the German Bundesverband Psychiatrie-Erfahrener
(Federal Association of [ex-] users and survivors of psychiatry).
And she is a trainer for (ex-) users and survivors of psychiatry
and their friends and supporting relatives as well as interested
workers in the psychiatric system; she offers training on topics
of how to deal with hearing voices, on the topic of self-help,
empowerment and alternatives to psychiatry. More
about Hannelore Klafki
Hannelore Klafki died at Sept. 4, 2005