January 21, 2013
There was a heart-breaking and disturbing story in this weekend’s Guardian newspaper entitled ‘My Daughter, the Schizophrenic’, (1) which featured edited extracts from a book written by the father of a child called Jani. He describes how Jani is admitted into a psychiatric hospital when she is 5, diagnosed with schizophrenia when she is 6 and by the time she is 7, she has been put on a potent cocktail of psychotropic medications:
”Jani is on three medications: Clozapine, lithium and Thorazine (known in the UK as Largactil). This combination has been the most successful. Are her hallucinations completely gone? No, but as she will tell us, they are not bothering her. It’s like having the TV on in the background, volume turned down, while you’re doing something, and every so often you look up at the screen to see what 400 the cat and other hallucinations are doing. They remain on Jani’s periphery, but she can still function in our common reality.”(2)
This harrowing description exemplifies the worst excesses of responding to a deeply troubled child’s distress as if it were a pathological illness, with the full psychiatric arsenal. What ensues can only be described as an account of psychiatric, human rights abuse.
If only Jani and her family were offered alternative kinds of help such as that developed by Voice Collective, (3) a London-wide project set up to support children and young people who hear, see and sense things others don’t. Voice Collective works with children, young people & families, and with professionals and organisations offering a whole range of services including peer support groups, so young people can meet with other young people with similar experiences, creative workshops, 1-2-1 support around making sense of voices and finding coping strategies, an online support forum. Voice Collective also offers a range of support services to families as well as supporting schools, social services, child and adolescent mental health services and other youth agencies to work with children & young people who have these experiences.
As one parent who has been supported by Voice Collective said:
‘You have brought us ‘normality’ within these experiences. You have taught us that with the appropriate support young people can lead happy and successful lives. You recognise the love we have for our children and have taught us how to support them”. – (Mother of a 12 year old)
How different things could be for Jani, her family and countless other children and families around the world if there were greater awareness that such humane and healing alternatives exist; approaches which help without doing more harm. (continued below the break)
(Questions, comments and/or reflections are welcome on this website or via Twitter @JacquiDillon
Jacqui Dillon’s website: http://www.jacquidillon.org
- January First: A Child’s Descent Into Madness And Her Father’s Struggle To Save Her, by Michael Schofield, published on 1 February by Hardie Grant Books.
Jani and her family originally appeared on the Oprah show in 2009. Many of us within the Hearing Voices Movement were so saddened and disturbed by Jani’s treatment that we wrote an open letter to Oprah Winfrey. Here is the open letter from INTERVOICE – the International Network for Training, Education and Research into Hearing Voices – an international organisation dedicated to spreading positive and hopeful messages about the experience of hearing voices across the world, reprinted again.
We are writing in response to your programme about “The 7-Year-Old Schizophrenic”, which concerned Jani, a child who hears voices, which was broadcast on the 6th October 2009. We hope to correct the pessimistic picture offered by the mental health professionals featured in your programme, and in the accompanying article on your website. What upset us most and moved us to write to you, is that parents will have been left with the impression that they are powerless to help their children if they hear voices. We are also concerned that the programme gave the impression that children with voices must be treated with medication. We note that the medications mentioned in your programme all have very serious side effects. (For example, antipsychotics such as Haldol cause neuronal loss, block the dopamine pathways in the brain required to processes rewarding stimuli, and carry a high risk of neurological and metabolic side effects such as Parkinsonianism and diabetes. Their effects on the developing brain are largely unknown and, in our view, they should only be given to children as a treatment as absolutely last resort.)
We have been researching and working with adults and children like Jani for the last twenty years, and our work has led us to very different conclusions from those reached by the mental health professionals on your programme. One of our founding members, Dr. Sandra Escher from the Netherlands, has spent the last fifteen years talking to children who hear voices, and to their parents and carers. This work is the most detailed and thorough investigation of children who hear voices carried out to date [1, 2]. The most important findings from recent research on hearing voices are as follows:
Prevalence of Voice Hearing in Adults and Children
Recent large-scale population (epidemiological) studies have shown that about 4-10 % of the adult population hear voices at some time in their lives [3-5]. Only about a third seek assistance from mental health services. Amongst children, the proportion hearing voices may be even higher  and, again, only a minority are referred for treatment. Hence, it is wrong to assume that voice hearing is always a pathological condition requiring treatment.
Everyone has an inner voice. Psychologists call this phenomenon ‘inner speech’ and it is an important mechanism that we use to regulate our own behaviour (plan what we want to do, direct our own actions). Child psychologists have long understood that this ability begins to develop at about 2-years of age [7, 8]. Hearing voices seems to reflect some kind of differentiation in the mind’s ability to tell the difference between inner speech and the heard speech of other people [9, 10].
Link to Trauma
A common theme in research with both adults and children is the relationship between hearing voices and traumatic experiences. In adults, around 75% begin to hear voices in relationship to a trauma or situations that make them feel powerless [11-13], for example the death of a loved one, divorce, losing a job, failing an exam, or longer lasting traumas such as physical, emotional or sexual abuse. The role of trauma was identified in 85% of the children we have studied, for example being bullied by peers or teachers, or being unable to perform to the required level at school, or being admitted to a hospital because of a physical illness. In short, our research has shown that hearing voices is usually a reaction to a situation or a problem that the child is struggling to cope with.
Voices have a meaning. A related and equally striking finding is that the voices often refer to the problem that troubles the child, but in an elliptical manner. To take just one example from the children studied by Sandra Escher:
The voices told an 8-year-old boy to blind himself. This frightened his mother. But when we discussed whether there was something in the life of the boy he could not face, she understood the voices’ message. The boy could not cope with his parents’ problematic marriage. He did not want to see it.
We wonder whether anyone has attempted to establish why, in Jani’s case, the rat is called “Wednesday”, why the girl is called “24 Hours”, and why is the cat called “400″? What do these mean for her? Why does Jani want people to call her “Blue-Eyed Tree Frog” and “Jani Firefly”?
Good Outcomes Without Treatment
Recently, Sandra Escher conducted a three-year follow up study of eighty children who heard voices, aged between 8 and 19 . Half received mental health care but the other half were not given any specialist care at all. The children were interviewed four times, at yearly intervals. By the end of the research period 60% of the children reported that their voices had disappeared. Very often, this was because the triggering problems were dealt with or because the child’s situation changed – for example, following a change of schools.
Helping Children Who Hear Voices: Advice to Parents
It is important to appreciate that the desire to make voices disappear, although usually the goal of the mental health care services, is not necessarily in the best interests of children. Some children do not want to lose their voices. If children can find within themselves the resources to cope with their voices, they can begin to lead happier and more balanced lives.
The most important element in this process is support from the family. Unfortunately, we have found that mental health services often fail to have a positive effect on children’s voices, because they foster fear rather than coping. However, we have found that referral to a psychotherapist who is prepared to discuss the meaning of voices is often helpful.
It is important that parents do not assume that hearing voices is a terrible disaster but instead regard it as a signal that something is troubling their child. If parents assume that voices are a symptom of an illness, and are afraid of them, the child will naturally pick up on this feeling. This can lead to a self-defeating cycle in which the child becomes fearful and obsessed by the voices.
We would like to offer this 10-point guide for parents, indicating what they can do if a child tells them that he or she hears voices:
1. Try not to over react. Although it is understandable that you will be worried, work hard not to communicate your anxiety to your child.
2. Accept the reality of the voice experience for your child; ask about the voices, how long the child has been hearing them, who or what they are, whether they have names, what they say, etc.
3. Let your child know that many other children hear voices and that usually they go away after a while.
4. Even if the voices do not disappear your child may learn to live in harmony with them.
5. It is important to break down your child’s sense of isolation and difference from other children. Your child is special – unusual perhaps, but really not abnormal.
6. Find out if your child has any difficulties or problems that he or she finds very hard to cope with, and work on fixing those problems. Think back to when the voices first started. What was happening to your child at the time? Was there anything unusual or stressful occurring?
7. If you think you need outside help, find a therapist who is prepared to accept your child’s experiences and work systematically with him or her to understand and cope better with the voices.
8. Be ready to listen to your child if he or she wants to talk about the voices. Use drawing, painting, acting and other creative ways to help the child to describe what is happening in his or her life.
9. Get on with your lives and try not to let the experience of hearing voices become the centre of your child’s life or your own.
10. Most children who live well with their voices have supportive families who accept the experience as part of who their child is. You can do this too!
In conclusion we would like to stress that, in our view, labelling a seven-year-old child as schizophrenic and subjecting her to powerful psychotropic medication and periodic hospitalisation is unlikely to help resolve her problems. Indeed, the opposite is most probable: children treated in this way will simply become more powerless. Because your well respected, award winning show reaches out to so many people, we are concerned that there will be many viewers who will be left with the impression that the treatment Jani receives is the only method available. We fear that this may cause some children to be subjected to an unnecessary lifetime in psychiatric care. It is very important to recognise that hearing voices, in itself, is not a sign of psychopathology.
We hope you will give consideration to the possibility of making a future programme showing the other side of the story, one of hope, optimism and with a focus on recovery. Perhaps you could make a programme about a child with similar voice experiences to Jani, who has been helped to come to terms with her or his experiences and to discuss with the child, parents and therapists how this was achieved? If there is any way we could help make this happen, please contact us.
We look forward to hearing from you on the issues raised in our letter.
(Letter re-edited with the kind assistance of Professor Richard Bentall)
For the Selected bibliography please see original piece at Mad In America. http://www.madinamerica.com/2013/01/the-hearing-voices-movement-in-response-to-a-father-my-daughter-the-schizophrenic/
Here are the first several comments that followed: