Hearing voices: gift or mental illness?

In Western medicine, hearing voices is seen as a symptom of mental illness.

But hearing voices is not always indicative of mental illness, explained traditional knowledge keeper Eddie Thomas during an online community wellness session last week.

“When it comes to hearing voices, there are some in our culture who have the gift of being able to hear spirits and they speak to them,” said Thomas. “Not everyone has this gift.”

But when the voice tells you to do bad things, it’s not coming from the other side, he explained.

That is when people should consider getting treatment and sticking to medication regimens, in addition to using traditional healing practices, said Thomas, who helps people suffering with mental illness using traditional ceremonies.

“If someone’s on medication, they should stick to their medication,” he said. “They (traditional medicine and Western medicine) work in hand in hand. It takes both.”

The discussion was part of an ongoing series by the Six Nations Health Promotion team to help bring the community together and learn about different topics during the pandemic.

About one in 10 people will hear voices in their lives, said Sam Burwell, early intervention case manager for Six Nations.

She said it’s quite a common experience.

There are a number of reasons that could trigger a person to hear voices from people that aren’t there: traumatic life experiences, stress, worry, lack of sleep, extreme hunger, side effect of prescriptions and recreational drugs, grief, mental health conditions such as schizophrenia and severe depression, and sometimes, spiritual gifts.

Hearing voices is most commonly associated with psychosis – when someone has lost touch with reality.

“People suffering from psychosis sometimes cannot tell the difference between what is real and what is not,” said Burwell.

Psychosis causes changes in someone’s thoughts, perceptions, beliefs and behaviours that leads them to perceive reality differently.

Psychosis occurs frequently in those with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, with symptoms such as hallucinations, delusional thinking, agitation, and disorganized speech. Auditory hallucinations are the most common hallucinations. Other symptoms of schizophrenia include less emotion, restricted speech, lack of energy, reduced motivation, desire to be alone, isolation and the inability to begin tasks.

Auditory hallucinations can sometimes mimic a family member or partner and can be extremely distressing to the person experiencing them.

To help listeners understand what it’s like to live with auditory hallucinations, presenters played a recording of voices speaking in the background while asking them to complete tasks like crossword puzzles. It was hard for most participants.

Risk factors for developing psychosis include abuse at any stage of life, being birthed by a mother experiencing severe stress while pregnant, being born in the winter, genetic predisposition, drug abuse, brain trauma, tumours, living in an inner city, prenatal or postnatal infection or experiencing a difficult birth.

Women are also at a higher risk of psychosis when entering menopause, as estrogen is considered a protective factor against developing it, said Burwell.

She said medications known as anti-psychotics can help people suffering from psychosis resume a normal life. But early intervention is important.

If you or a loved one is experiencing mental distress, you can call Six Nations Mental Health and Addictions for help at 519-445-2418.

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