I recently had the privilege of attending the 9th Annual World Hearing Voices Congress, held this year, in Boston, USA. Below is an account of the event and what I experienced.

Day One

The event ran from August 16-18. The first day was titled “Intervoice Day – Making Connections and Learning from Experience”. What, you may ask, is Intervoice? The conference literature describes it as follows:

“Intervoice aims to support the International Hearing Voices Movement by connecting people, sharing ideas, distributing information, highlighting innovative initiatives, encouraging high quality respectful research and promoting its values across the world.”

So…what about this Hearing Voices Movement, you may wonder?

“The International Hearing Voices Movement consists of the diverse conversations, initiatives, groups and individuals around the world that share some core values. These include: hearing voices, seeing visions and related phenomena as meaningful experiences that can be understood in many ways; hearing voices is not, in itself, an indication of illness – but difficulties coping with voices can cause great distress; when people are overwhelmed by their experiences, support offered should be based on respect, empathy, informed choice and an understanding of the personal meaning hearing voices have in someone’s life.”

Day one of the event began with a “Welcome to Everyone’s Voices”. We learned that there are 33 countries with Hearing Voices Networks around the world. Canada, for example, has groups in Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Alberta and British Columbia. I didn’t realize until this event, that Quebec has 30 hearing voices groups. There’s something for British Columbia to aspire to!

The folks from Montreal said a few words, as did Kevin Healey, Canada’s National Hearing Voices Network Representative who is based in Toronto. We also learned that the 2019 World Hearing Voices Congress will be held in Canada: Montreal to be specific. Wow.

We listened as people shared their experiences, witnessed the announcement of Intervoice Awards recipients and took part in “open space” discussions with other voice hearers and allies. It was a powerful feeling to see so many voice hearers, vision seers and others with unusual experiences gathered together to openly talk about their experiences and insights in an atmosphere of acceptance.

Day Two

Days two and three focused more on presentations and workshops. Keynote speakers for day two were Dirk Corstens, Lisa Forestell, Gogo Ekhaya Esima, Marty Hadge and Akiko Hart. Sadly, my notes don’t specify who said what, but some comments that stood out to me included:

  • “My experience is real, relevant, important and meaningful”.
  • Sometimes the messages from voices get really big and dramatic to get me to pay attention.
  • A voice telling you to kill yourself may actually be about something in your life that needs to die.
  • Voices can cause you to examine what you really believe.
  • Connection may be a better response to hopelessness than hope.

After the keynotes on day two, we had a wide range of workshops to choose from, including: Putting a Face to your Voice, Creating Safe Space for Children, Journal Writing for Voice Hearers, A Conversation on Gender and Sexuality, Film Screening: Hearing Voices, Hearing Voices Research, Psychosis and Spirituality, Drummers and Dreams: Driven “Sane” in Indian Country, Accepting our Voice, How to Survive College as a Voice Hearer, plus many others.

Day Three:

Keynote presentations were from Noel Hunter, Barry Floyd, David Walker and Val Resh. Workshops we could choose from were just as varied as during the previous day and included: People of Color and the Hearing Voices Network, Death by a Thousand Cuts, A Family’s Journey with Unseen Voices and Pictures, Behind Locked Doors and Without Walls, An Open Space Discussion Around Open Dialogue, Fluidity of Self, Sketch Journals in Crisis and Recovery, Hearing Voices, Living Fully, Rethinking Insight, Permeability and Talking Back to our Voices, Shamanism to Schizophrenia, plus others.

Workshop On Research

One workshop I attended was on Hearing Voices Research delivered by Gail Hornstein who is a psychology professor and teaches research methods to undergraduate students. Gail is interested in the politics and history of research methodology. She notes that research is highly political. There was a huge amount of research funded by tobacco companies saying that tobacco was good for you – not bad for you. Psychiatric medication is researched by pharmaceutical companies who are far from unbiased. She asks questions such as:

  • Why are quantitative methods in psychology more valued than qualitative?
  • What are the issues that we hardly ever get to talk about?
  • Who designs research?
  • What is measured?
  • What are the politics, values, and ethics behind what you want to know?
  • What is taken to be an outcome?
  • What is evidence, what does it mean? How do we decide? Who decides?
  • What constitutes rigorous?
  • What constitutes well controlled?
  • Who decides what standardized assessment tools to use?

Gail Hornstein and Jacqui Dillon are doing a qualitative study of hearing voices groups in the U.S. Their research team is made up of half voice hearers and half academic researchers working together. Gail says that the qualities that make hearing voices groups distinctive make it difficult to study them. She asks:  Does each person have to find the group helpful for the same reason that other people do to find it effective? She talked about how taking out the richness of peoples’ experience makes statistics not objective. She notes that one of the greatest strengths of the Hearing Voices Network is that it doesn’t claim that one approach will work for all; you have to acknowledge variability. Qualitative research lends itself well to the richness and diversity of experience and value within hearing voices groups. She also made a point of saying hearing voices groups are not anti-psychiatry, a claim that I sometimes hear.

Final Thoughts

I left the Hearing Voices Congress feeling excited. It was amazing to be with hundreds of other voice hearers, vision seers and others with unusual experiences, many of who valued those experiences. The atmosphere was positive, supportive and accepting. And it was very clear that it is absolutely possible to live well with these experiences. We can all lead good lives. Hearing voices is part of the continuum of human experience. What a wonderful message.

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