By Hywel Davies
Reproduced by kind permission of Breakthrough, where it originally appeared in April/May, 1997
Pope John Paul II wrote in a recent book (1) that we are the beginning of an age of “modern Subjectivism”. Recent events in the world of progressive western psychiatry confirm this.
With the pioneering encouragement of the Dutch consultant psychiatrist and professor of social psychiatry, Marius Romme, the issue of voice hearing has begun to gain momentum in Holland, Britain and Europe. Twelve people in a hundred hear voices. Some of these voice hearers have been labelled by traditional western psychiatry as “schizophrenic”. Marius Romme’s contribution has helped certain voice hearers cope without resorting to significant amounts of medication. Or without having to stay for a substantial period of time in hospital.
Such change provides opportunity of considerable worth. For voice hearers to express and share, with others, their aural and possibly visual experiences without fear of psychiatric interference represents a progression of economy and hope. In regard to the voice hearer, self-knowledge and self-awareness are the ultimate product. As Tessa Bielecki wrote in her book on Teresa of Avila (2), “self-knowledge is fundamental for human integration, while the lack of it leads to neurosis and psychosis.”
As someone defined by psychiatry as a “schizophrenic”, I do not accept that I am essentially a biochemical aberration, doomed by to time to await, through science normalisation. That I expect to hear voices or a voice for the rest of my days is irrelevant. What is relevant is the waste and hell of the many hundreds of thousands of people in Europe for whom voice hearing has been or isa ruinous experience. In the context of this wasted hell and in the context of biology and chemistry as practised by traditional western psychiatry with its significant emphasis on the medical model of “schizophrenia”, the Hearing Voices movement in Europe is a promising development not without potential or benefit. It is an idea whose time, it seems, has arrived.
Anyone in Europe defined by psychiatry as having a severe mental “illness” must be grateful for the work and commitment of the late and able Michel Foucault. Foucault’s influence on Marius Romme’s professional activities is, it appears, implicitly marked. The published work of Thomas Szasz, Jeffrey Masson and Peter Breggin has had, I assume, a similarly implicit and significant effect.
“Accepting Voices” (3) may prove to be the most positively significant book published in English about “madness” since R.D. Laing’s “The Divided Self’, published in 1967. It is my hope that Marius Romme and Sondra Escher, editors of “Accepting Voices” and leading enablers in the Hearing Voices movement in Europe, will be honoured one day with a Nobel Prize for Peace.
In the 6th century, in Pembrokeshire in West Wales, there used to be a man called Brynach. On many days, he used to go to the top of a nearby mountain in order to “commune with the angels”. In due course he was recognised as a saint of the early Celtic Church. If Brynach had lived in Wales in the 20th Century, he would probably have been labelled by psychiatry asa “schizophrenic”.
A few moments on a programme in the 1995 BBC “States of Mind” season confirmed the link between “religiosity” and “madness”. A leading member of “Survivors Speak Out” cited the story of a friend of his. She had been known by psychiatry as a “schizophrenic”. When alive, she used to see “angels”, those “angels” used to make her so happy that she used to dance with them. A consultant psychiatrist told her that as a victim of a mental “illness”, she was going to be “cured” and that the “angels” were going to be taken away from her· This upset the lady so much that she took her own life.
“Totalitarian Theories” (4) had wanted their way and the cost of subjugated knowledge (ibid) had been death. A 6th century saint has metaphorically speaking a 20th century suicide. It is a matter of concern that 10% of “schizophrenics” take their own lives. A cursory look at the visual and aural experiences connected to the lives of the early Celtic saints underlines the fact that their that their spiritual descendants have been socially marginalised as a result of “principles of exclusion. (5)
Debris of the defeat were often housed in mental health asylums throughout Europe. Voltaire and his ilk became mainstream. Human vessels of reIigious and spiritual experience became “aliens”. Treated by “alienists”. Reason and psychiatry tended to transmogrify spirit into societal irrelevance . Saints, prophets, geniuses and/or gurus and the potential for such tended to be housed in often large and foreboding, repressive settings. Inmates were often mistreated. The “Age of Reason” was at large.
In the 20th century, replenished by psychiatry genetics eugenics and a desire for racial purity, Hitler, the German leader, regarded the, mentally “ill” as “useless eaters”. The mentally. “ill”, along with the Jews, gypsies, opposition activists and homosexuals were killed in Nazi Germany in considerable numbers. The mentally “ill” killed in Nazi Germany in the 1930’s and 1940’s numbered more than 200,000.
By the time of late 20th century Britain, consumers of mental health services and their loved ones now live in a time of change. Despite the high profile of certain murders tragically committed by “schizophrenics”, “schizophrenics” as a people are generally gentle and peaceful folk. As are all people who have had or have mental health problems. However, “normality” is out of touch with reality. “Normality” tends to equate mental illness with violence and danger.
“Schizophrenia” often consists of hearing voices. In this context, Professor Marius Romme is correct to refer to three phases in coping with hearing voices: the startling phase. the organisation phase, and the stabilisation phase. Many “normal” people equate “madness” with the first of the three phases. And regard the mentally “ill” hence as dangerous and violent to others. Common perception is out of touch with reality.
A person without a mental health problem is 400% more likely to commit an act of homicide than a person with a mental health problem. A “schizophrenic” is 100 times more likely to physically harm him or herself than harm anyone else. For every person killed by someone with a diagnosis of “schizophrenia”, drink drivers kill approximately twenty four.
Large psychiatric hospitals have either been closed or reduced in capacity. Inhabitants of psychiatric hospitals have been’ released. People troubled and not so troubled have been encouraged to talk. At home. In homes. Self-help groups. Bars. Cafes. Restaurants. Parks. Day hospitals. Public and private place of one type or another. In the community.A humanisation and a sensitisation of mental health service care provision appears to have taken place in Britain in the past forty years. This liberalisation has been nothing short of a revolution. The mistaken tendency of the British media to accentuate the link between mental “illness” and physical violence is lamentable. It makes community care more difficult to achieve and it disjoints reality. On humanitarian grounds alone. community care has to work. For too long, traditional western psychiatry as practised in this century and the last has often been an agent of unrepentant repression rather than a willing and humble agent of enablement and integration.
In the context of the present century, psychiatric intervention should not be seen by traditional western psychiatry as an end in itself, but as means with other means to a more positive conclusion.
Consumers of mental health services have to, I suggest, try to confront trauma and try to create something positive out of something negative. Change minus into plus. A new reality has to emerge, one in which, I suggest, astrology and the concept of reincarnation (“past lives”) are more present than “normal” traditional thinking allows. Rightly or wrongly I believe that a considerable number of people in Europe are willing and able to sympathise in public or in private with those people who have or have had mental health problems. This is virtually unknown if one takes into account Europe in the last 250 years or so.
lain MacCleod, the late Tory politician, stated that “competition needs compassion” and certain significant figures in the competitive culture of Britain today appear to show compassion towards the depressive marginalised. The wish of significant people in Britain to see community care for those with mental health problems work, the increased public profile of mental health as a contemporary British issue, the welcome 1995 BBC “States of Mind” season and the successful holding of the first International Hearing Voice conference in Holland in 1995 reflect that mental health matters is in a time of change. And that possibly a New Age is beginning.
Let us hope that mental health service care provision, professional and/or voluntary, is able to put with others flesh on the bones of the new reality of community care. In time of change, in place of fear this new reality of care in the community is challenging and historically significant.
(1) Crossing The Threshold of Hope, Pope John Paul II. Jonathan Cope, 1994.
(2) Teresa of Avila, Tessa Bielecki, Burns and Oates, 1994,
(3) Accepting Voices, Eds. Professor Marius Romme and Sondra Escher, MIND, 1993.
(4) Power/Knowledge.’ Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972/77, Michel Foucault, Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1980.
(5) The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, Vol. 4, “Michel Foucault”, 1993.