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Hearing voices is normal! Mental health campaigner speaks at Abertay

21 March 2014

Voice hearer Jacqui Dillon will speak to mental health practitioners from across Tayside at Abertay University today (March 21).

A respected campaigner, writer, academic, and international speaker, Jacqui specialises in voice hearing, dissociation, trauma and abuse - among other things - and has worked within mental health services for more than 15 years.

Traditionally described within psychiatry as 'auditory hallucinations', voice hearing has usually been viewed as a symptom of schizophrenia or psychosis.

However, there are conflicting theories amongst professionals and researchers within the field of mental health about what causes voice hearing, and more evidence is emerging which suggests that many people who hear voices do so following traumatic or stressful experiences.

This has led to a shift in focus from asking solely what is wrong with someone, to asking instead what has happened to them.

By using this approach, mental health practitioners can better understand what their clients are going through and can help them make sense of, and cope with, their experiences, so that they can live meaningful and fulfilling lives.

This is a shift that is reflected in the changes that are taking place within mental health services more generally.

Jacqui Dillon explains:

"The traditional biomedical approach for the treatment of voice hearing has been to prescribe strong tranquilisers to try and suppress the voices, because it was believed that hearing voices was a sign of an illness. However, medication doesn’t work for everyone and there are growing concerns about its long term effects.

"As well as this, if the voices are pointing to an underlying problem, then perhaps it makes more sense to try and address the underlying problems, rather than to just try and suppress them with powerful sedatives. Research has shown, for example, that voice hearing can occur as a result of extreme stress or trauma - as it did in my case.

"With this in mind, some psychiatrists and psychologists have begun putting into practice approaches and techniques developed by voice hearers who have learned to live with their experiences. One of these is to use 'talking therapies', which is where the therapist encourages the client to listen to the voices in their head, rather than trying to block them out.

"They then work together to try and explore the meaning of what the voices are saying, which can help the person make sense of what is happening to them and make it easier for them to cope, and live comfortably, with what they are experiencing."

Jacqui has participated in this approach herself and, as a result of her own experience, is a strong proponent of its use and of letting people know that it is possible to recover your mental health from even the most desperate of places.

She continues:

"People often worry that the voices people hear are telling them to do violent and aggressive things and that they will act on what they are being told to do, but it is possible to help people choose whether they act on what the voices are saying or not.

"Additionally, hearing voices isn’t always a distressing, negative experience, and it’s not always directly related to madness. But trying to ignore, or block out, the voices, can be incredibly stressful, and there are plenty of effective ways to deal with the experience that can enable people to lead normal lives without necessarily having to take medication - something that leaves many people unable to feel or experience anything at all."

At Abertay, Jacqui will combine both her lived-experience as a voice hearer and her academic knowledge to help mental health nurses, voice hearers and other mental health practitioners better understand this phenomenon.

Jacqui's training will also help the participants think more deeply about the ways in which they can help voice hearers come to terms with what has happened to them so that they can rebuild their lives.

This has been a two-day event (beginning on March 20) and is one of six workshops being held at Abertay University this spring, to accompany two newly developed modules for mental health practitioners: Recovery and Self-management, and Crisis Intervention and Resolution.

Both of these courses are fully subscribed, and will be attended by mental health nurses and practitioners from across Scotland.


For media enquiries please contact Kirsty Cameron T: 01382 308935 M: 07972172158 E:

Notes to Editors:

Abertay University specialises in Mental Health Nursing, and intends to develop a Centre for Excellence in Mental Health Nursing over the next few years.

About Jacqui Dillon

Jacqui is national Chair of the Hearing Voices Network in England, and a key figure in the Hearing Voices Movement internationally.

- The Hearing Voices Network aims to raise awareness of voice hearing; to give men, women and children who have these experiences an opportunity to talk freely about them together in support groups; and to help people who hear voices to understand, learn and grow from these experiences in their own way.

She is Honorary Lecturer in Clinical Psychology at the University of East London; Honorary Research Fellow in the School of Medicine, Pharmacy and Health at Durham University; and Visiting Research Fellow at the Centre for Community Mental Health at Birmingham City University.

She has published numerous articles and papers on the subject of voice hearing, and is on the editorial board of the journal Psychosis: Psychological, Social and Integrative Approaches.

Her story

Jacqui began hearing voices as long ago as she can remember.

She has over 100 different voices that speak to her from inside her head – some are men, some are women, some are children, and some are even babies.

She hears them every day. Sometimes speaking directly to her, sometimes chattering in the background, sometimes singing, and sometimes one voice speaking to her on behalf of another that feels unable to articulate itself well enough at that particular time.

Some of Jacqui’s voices have been with her since childhood. Others have appeared as she has got older. And Jacqui believes that their presence in her life is linked to the severe abuse she suffered as a child.

One voice in particular – The Great Mother – used to come to her when she was feeling very lonely and frightened as a small child, to reassure her that everything was going to be alright.

This particular voice remains a very powerful and reassuring presence in her life, and she describes the presence of this collection of voices as a cast of supportive characters in her head, that love her and know her better than anyone else.

However, around the time of the birth of her first child, the voices in Jacqui’s head changed; they became paranoid and highly disturbing.

They would tell her that someone was going to harm her and harm her baby, and she began to see horrifying images of things that had happened to her when she was younger, happening to her child.

She refers to this experience as heartbreaking, because a time in her life that had been idyllic was suddenly invaded by the demons from her past.

She kept these things to herself, however, and coped with these threatening voices alone until her daughter was a toddler. She says the reason she felt unable to talk to anyone about it was because she felt ashamed and that what was happening to her was her own fault.

However, she eventually reached a crisis point when the voices started telling her to kill herself. She sought professional help because she came extremely close to taking her own life.

Her doctor recommended that she go into hospital, and Jacqui agreed, because she felt desperate and this seemed like the responsible thing to do.

She was admitted to her local psychiatric unit, and describes it as “like hell on earth”.

An old fashioned asylum, there were patients on the ward who had been there for many many years.

Jacqui was left pretty much alone on the ward until she had been there for around five days, when a psychiatrist came to assess her.

He asked a lot of questions, particularly about her family and any history of mental illness.

And it was at this point that, for the first time in her life, Jacqui felt she should tell someone about the abuse she had experienced as a child.

In spite of the voices in her head telling her not to, she opened up to this psychiatrist about everything that had happened to her as a little girl.

But almost as soon as she’d begun, she was interrupted.

The psychiatrist told her that many patients tell him similar stories, and that the outcome is always the same: when they get their families in to hear their version of events, it becomes clear that what the patients are saying has been made up. It is all imagined, and is all part of their illness.

He told her she was very sick and that she had a psychotic illness. That none of the things she was saying had actually happened to her.

But he reassured her that she was in the right place, and said not to worry, because they would take care of her.

Jacqui was devastated.

In her head she could hear one of the voices that was destroying her life telling her to take violent action against this man for what he was saying.

But another voice – one that is still with her to this day – told her to get out of the room as fast as she could.

Saying she felt unwell, Jacqui went to the ladies bathroom where she broke down in tears, because she knew at that point that the place that was meant to provide her with safety and sanctuary, was actually the place that was going to drive her over the edge.

She was distraught and outraged because, rather than treating these things that had happened to her as real experiences, they were being turned into the symptoms of an illness.

And that, for her, felt like a crime. Like a huge insult to an existing injury.

But it was also at that point that she decided that, if she got through this experience, she would do whatever she could to make sure it never happened to anyone else.

And she did get through it.

She got out of institutional care by telling everyone that the voices had gone away.

They let her go home. And she was never followed up.

But the voices were still there.

The good ones and the bad.

And she knew that she had to do something to deal with the bad ones because they were causing her so much distress.

So she found a therapist who, fortunately, was willing to believe what she said.

They worked together for a number of years and, through a process of trial and error, began to listen to what the voices were saying.

Initially Jacqui found this very hard, because some of the things the voices were saying terrified her.

But, with the therapist’s support, she managed to do it. And the voices began to tell her the story of her life, which helped her slowly piece herself back together again.

Jacqui’s work on voice hearing gets sufferers to look at the experience in a different way. To accept that the voices are there, which changes the tortuous relationship they have with them.

These days, Jacqui is back to finding that having these voices is extremely helpful, as they are insightful and comforting and help her keep on top of everything going on in her busy life as a working mum.

Different voices deal with different things going on in her life – like the different departments in a large corporation – and she says she would be lost without them.

They are all different aspects of her, and that is just who she is.

Listening to the voices, rather than taking medication to suppress them, went against all the recommendations of almost every other mental health practitioner at that time.

However, over the past 20 years, things have begun to change and, rather than telling people they will never get better, mental health services are moving towards giving people coping strategies so that they can live near-normal lives.

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