Psychotic Experiences Are Not Always a Sign of Mental Illness

Hearing Voices UMB-O Dollarphotoclub_73109512According to a July 2015 article by Anna Medaris Miller for U.S. News and World Report, there are “lots of potential reasons someone might hear voices, including anxiety, stress, depression and a history of trauma.”

Of course, all of these are “good reasons to seek mental health help.” But don’t conclude that a mental illness diagnosis is the only outcome.

In the article, Miller quotes Lisa Forestell, the director of community support at Western Massachusetts Recovery Learning Community who has heard voices her entire life. “They’re playful and silly and they try to cheer me up when I’m sad.” She also quotes Dr. John McGrath, a professor of psychiatry at The University of Queensland in Australia and researcher at the Queensland Brain Institute whose research team found that 2.5% of the population has heard voices and 3.8% has seen something others didn’t see. Psychotic experiences, he says, “are more common than we had been taught. What we really have to do is go back and revise how these symptoms fit into the profile of mental illness.”

This isn’t to say that hallucinations are never a symptom of mental illness. The point really is that hallucinations are a symptom with a variety of possible causes, including mental illness, but possibly also stress or trauma. Dr. Joseph Pierre, co-chief of the Schizophrenia Treatment Unit at VA West Los Angeles Healthcare Center, and also discussed in the article, conducted a study that compared 118 people who hear voices at least once a month and have a psychotic diagnosis to 111 people who hear voices at least once a month but don’t have mental illness. He found differences, including the tendency for people with psychosis to hear voices more often, to hear them express negative emotions. The diagnosed psychotic subjects also had little control over their voices. In his study, Pierre compared hearing voices to coughs — “common experiences that are often, but not always, symptoms of pathology associated with a larger illness.”

To read the article see Living With the Voices in Your Head.

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Stanford study finds auditory hallucinations affected by local culture

FROM STANFORD REPORT, July 16, 2014, Hallucinatory ‘voices’ shaped by local culture, Stanford anthropologist says, by Clifton B. Parker. People suffering from schizophrenia may hear “voices” – auditory hallucinations – differently depending on their cultural context, according to new Stanford research.

Tanya Luhrmann, professor of anthropology, studies how culture affects the experiences of people who experience auditory hallucinations, specifically in India, Ghana and the United States.

In the United States, the voices are harsher, and in Africa and India, more benign, said Tanya Luhrmann, a Stanford professor of anthropologyand first author of the article in the British Journal of Psychiatry.

The experience of hearing voices is complex and varies from person to person, according to Luhrmann. The new research suggests that the voice-hearing experiences are influenced by one’s particular social and cultural environment – and this may have consequences for treatment.

The striking difference was that while many of the African and Indian subjects registered predominantly positive experiences with their voices, not one American did. Rather, the U.S. subjects were more likely to report experiences as violent and hateful – and evidence of a sick condition. The Americans experienced voices as bombardment and as symptoms of a brain disease caused by genes or trauma.

Why the difference? Luhrmann offered an explanation: Europeans and Americans tend to see themselves as individuals motivated by a sense of self identity, whereas outside the West, people imagine the mind and self interwoven with others and defined through relationships.

Luhrmann said the role of culture in understanding psychiatric illnesses in depth has been overlooked.

“The work by anthropologists who work on psychiatric illness teaches us that these illnesses shift in small but important ways in different social worlds. Psychiatric scientists tend not to look at cultural variation. Someone should, because it’s important, and it can teach us something about psychiatric illness,” said Luhrmann, an anthropologist trained in psychology. She is the Watkins University Professor at Stanford.

See the full Stanford News article HERE.

What are Hallucinations?

People experience hallucinations when one or more senses cause them to misinterpret reality. Although the person may be aware that the hallucination is not real, they appear as if it were really happening. This can affect any or all senses:

  • Visual. Visual hallucinations involve seeing things that aren’t there. The hallucinations may be of objects, visual patterns, people, and/or lights. For example, you might see a person who is not in the room or flashing lights that no one else can see.
  • Olfactory. Olfactory hallucinations involve your sense of smell. You might smell an unpleasant odor when waking up in the middle of the night or feel that your body smells bad when it doesn’t. This type of hallucination can also include scents you find enjoyable, like the smell of flowers.
  • Auditory. Auditory hallucinations are among the most common. You might hear someone speaking to you or telling you to do certain things. The voice may be angry, neutral, or warm. Other examples of this type of hallucination include hearing sounds, like someone walking in the attic, or repeated clicking or tapping noises.
  • Tactile. Tactile hallucinations involve the feeling of touch or movement in your body. For example, you might feel that bugs are crawling on your skin or that your internal organs are moving around. You might also feel the imagined touch of someone’s hands on your body.
  • Gustatory. Gustatory hallucination is the sensation of tasting something that isn’t really there, typically an unpleasant flavor. Can be a symptom of certain types of epilepsy, or schizophrenia.