Sunday, February 10, 2013

Hearing Voices

Why is it that some people who report hearing voices end up in psychiatric institutions, and others end up on TV? I worked for several years in psychiatric hospitals, and also in the community among people suffering from a mental illness, together with their families. The majority of the people that I worked with suffered from schizophrenia, and many of those would regularly hear voices, alongside their other symptoms. There were those among the staff, nurses and psychiatrists, who were naturally suspicious of anyone who claimed to have direct communication with God or spirits. This could make life difficult for someone working as a chaplain in this context, although I never claimed any such direct communication myself!

And yet there are plenty of people around who claim to hear God’s (or a god’s) voice, to be in direct communication with spirits or aliens, or who claim to “channel” some kind of being. Why are these people not “mentally ill”? Some would probably say they are! I would not. Misguided, almost certainly, if not actually fraudulent, but not mentally ill. Anyone who has worked closely with people with a serious mental illness knows that such a person has great difficulty functioning in day to day life. When they are psychotic they are in no condition to run a television show or a business. What they say rarely makes sense. Those among us who claim to channel an alien intelligence or a great being from the past may say unbelievable things, but they make sense. By that I mean only that they are able put words together to form sentences and coherent speech. I make no judgement about the worth of what they say.

Which of these groups of people, those with a mental illness, which generally destroys their life, or those who claim to channel a greater intelligence, or to communicate with us on behalf of departed spirits, represents the greater threat? We will mostly ignore the psychotic ravings of someone who is seriously ill, but the words of someone who claims to have tapped into a greater wisdom can sometimes be seductive. I understand the temptation to believe.

I, at least, am more inclined to listen to someone who speaks with their own voice.


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