The photo is of me in my favourite spot at Alternative Grounds.
A big thanks to reporter Valerie Hauch and photographer Steve Russell!
Hearing voices need not mean you’re crazy, says activist
Kevin Healey hears voices in his head, talks to them, feels very well and doesn’t want medication, thank you very much.
“I’m good. I’m not on medication and I don’t need to see anyone in mental health,” says Healey, 50, an articulate man who likes to laugh and is at peace with the dozen voices he carries in his head — all of whom, he says, have distinct personalities.
He has no desire to be rid of them.
A former government worker in management services, where his “voices” often were a huge help — “I can come up with as many ideas as a whole room full of people” — Healey now offers consultation services in the mental health field, writes a blog, and facilitates a monthly peer support group for other people who hear voices.
He’s trying to reach out to help the public understand “voice hearers” like himself and was one of the “busiest books” last year at the North York branch of the Toronto Public Library’s human library event.
“Having spent 40 years hiding the fact that I heard voices, now I’m talking about it openly … I accept my voices as real,” says Healey. “The positive response I get gives me energy. When you’re hiding something … those are the things that make you ill.”
Healey is an outspoken member of the controversial Hearing Voices Network, a global self-help organization across 22 countries that was founded in Europe in the late ’80s, following pioneering work by Dutch psychiatrists Marius Romme and Sandra Escher.
Romme and Escher broke from the conventional outlook that the voices people hear in their heads are indicative of mentally ill minds and should be suppressed with medication. They believe that voices can be positive and that there are ways to deal with difficult or distressing voices.
Romme and Escher have also created a non-profit international organization called Intervoice (International Network for Training, Education and Research into Hearing Voices) to promote the idea that hearing voices is a “normal though unusual variation in human behaviour” and that 2 to 4 per cent of the population hear voices at some point, sometimes regularly.
On the Intervoice website, Romme says his research indicates many people who hear voices “can point to a traumatic life event that triggered their voices” and that talking about their voices and what they mean is a very effective way to reduce anxiety and isolation.
“Even when the voices are overwhelming and seemingly destructive they often have an important message for the hearer,” he says.
At the same time, Romme believes many of those who do hear voices do not have any mental illness and do not seek help.
But while the Hearing Voices Network is growing internationally — there are more than 40 support groups in Britain alone — and more recently in Canada and the U.S., there is still much skepticism in the medical community.
Dr. Tom Ungar, chief of psychiatry at North York General Hospital, says his main take on the movement is that “they seem to be oversimplifying. They’re polarizing. They’re focusing on voices as good or bad and you’re with us or against us and that’s really not the issue to me. The issue is the person and the context of those voices.”
Hearing voices can be “a symptom of a medical problem, of a health problem, including nonpsychiatric ones,” he says. “Most people who hear voices probably will have a psychiatric illness we call schizophrenia. It’s the most common diagnosis with people who hear voices.”
Still, says Ungar, among those who hear voices, “some don’t need psychiatric help … as long as they’re not dangerous to themselves or others, then it’s their choice. If they’re at peace and not bothered then, I don’t know why they would go for treatment.”
He would still question, though, whether the “very illness that may cause voices may impair their cognitive capacity.”
Ungar does support the advocacy work that the Hearing Voices movement does in combating the idea that people who hear voices are to be feared.
“Most people who hear voices aren’t dangerous,” he says.
Only a small percentage of them have “command hallucinations”: voices that may order them to do things, sometimes resulting in harm to themselves or others.
An example of this is the case of Vince Li. In 2008, while riding on a Greyhound bus in Manitoba, a voice in his head told Li to kill a fellow passenger he believed to be an alien. He did just that, a horrific beheading that led to him being committed to a mental health centre after he was diagnosed schizophrenic and found not criminally responsible.
Sadly, it’s these rare cases that we often associate with people who hear voices.
“People remember those stories. They’re very powerful,” admits Healey. “The public thinks, you hear voices, you’re going to kill me. But in reality people who hear voices are much more likely to be the victim of violence rather than the perpetrator. And if they are the perpetrator, they’re much more likely to be committing the violence against themselves.”
Healey says he doesn’t advocate against the use of medication, which can have significant side effects and may not totally eradicate the voices. But he feels it should be a choice that people who hear voices should make themselves.
“My approach is let’s offer people some options. I’m lucky in that the smallest amount of medication that I need is zero. But for some people, they find it’s ‘some.’ Some people say they could live med-free but it’s just too much hard work so they prefer to take some (medication).”
The voices can be overwhelming, he says, and he has gone through times when he’s had difficulty with one of his voices, linked to childhood trauma. But that’s been resolved, he said.
Nonetheless, he says it can be exhausting to both deal with voices and interact with society. As an example, he says, imagine two people having a conversation while they’re being swarmed by others who are breaking into the conversation and talking all at once.
There are techniques Healey and others in the Hearing Voices movement use to “organize” their voices and manage them.
Those techniques have helped Mark Roininen, a case manager with a mental health agency in Toronto, whose clientele includes homeless people who hear voices.
A consulting psychiatrist suggested to Roininen that he might get insight into his clients by talking to Healey. Over the past three years Healey has helped him understand a lot about his clients, he says, and they appeared together on a recent CBC Metro Morning segment on hearing voices.
Although some of his clients may have been diagnosed with schizophrenia, Roininen says he “doesn’t like the word” although he acknowledges he “used to use it all the time.” But since learning more about the hearing voices movement and getting to know his clients he doesn’t feel “it’s descriptive of the experiences of what a person is going through.”
The mystery of why people hear voices remains.
There’s no definitive one-answer-for-all, although explanations range from chemical imbalance, traumatic events, spiritual beliefs to external spiritual forces.
CAMH’s Dr. Kwame McKenzie, who’s also a professor of psychiatry at U of T, says there’s “reasonable research that shows the voices probably are not external … you’re not getting stuff beamed into you from elsewhere.”
He believes the voices are self-generated. “But it doesn’t matter. If you’re hearing voices, you’re hearing voices. Is it normal or abnormal? All abnormal means is it’s strange.”
Dr. McKenzie says most people don’t hear voices regularly but many have heard them “at least once in their life.”
If you’re hearing voices and it’s not causing any problems, and if you’re able to function and pose no danger to yourself or others, then “carry on with your life,” he says.
Who has heard voices?
Many famous people have reported they’ve heard voices and history has recorded some of them, like Joan of Arc, who believed she was getting messages from God. St. Theresa of Avila also reported having visions and hearing voices.
Singer Jennifer Hudson reported hearing the voice of her brother and her mother in her head, after they were murdered in 2008. Their voices were calming and encouraging, she says, telling her she should sing again.
Actor Anthony Hopkins admitted in a media interview that he sometimes hears a critical, mocking voice in his head, and links it to an insecure childhood.
Beach Boys singer Brian Wilson has also spoken about hearing voices in his head.
Winston Churchill suffered from bouts of depression and there are reports that he sometimes heard voices.
Mahatma Gandhi wrote about hearing a voice, from time to time, which guided him and which he believed was the voice of God.