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April 12, 2016 by Jacob Hess, PhD

In Praise of a Non-Aggressive, Creative Way of Working with Unusual Mental States

One of my best friends is in prison.  Over the years, unusual mental and emotional experiences led him to seek some way – any way – to find answers and healing.  And yet everywhere he turned, he was told there was one answer.  When he resisted that answer, he was encouraged, then pressed, then taken to court.

With a judge’s blessing, he was forcibly medicated.

Over and over and over again.  At the climax of his most recent up-and-down, he approached a religious leader for some solace.  Before hearing much from my friend, the leader’s first question was:  “Are you taking your meds?”

Even if The Answer was as crucial as everyone said, my friend felt consistently unheard and treated mostly like a child.

With so little acknowledgment of his lived experience – not to mention his sensitivity, his intelligence and his suffering – he ended up lashing out earlier this year and committing an aggressive act against someone else.

Now – he gets jail time.

After one coercion doesn’t work, sometimes we just opt for another.

What if it didn’t have to be that way?  What if there was another way entirely devoid of aggression and coercion…what if?

I can’t be the only one asking those questions in my community, but sometimes it sure seems that way. There seems to be literally no other option in my community for teens or adults hearing voices or having unusual mental/emotional experiences – no other option, of course, than The Answer.

A dream come true.  After first hearing about the Hearing Voice Network from Rufus May, an academic (and formerly given a diagnosis of schizophrenia) whom I visited in England, I’ve always dreamed of experiencing the training myself.

Thanks to the Hearing Voices Research and Development Fund at EXCELLENCE, I was stunned last year to see a training offered one state away – adjacent to my Utah home. Nothing was going to stop me from getting there!

With twenty other participants, after trekking through a near blizzard to get there – we spent three days learning from Lisa Forstell and Caroline White – two women who hear voices.

The instruction and presentation was nothing short of brilliant…this, from someone who typically detests trainings.

Over these days, I found myself riveted to my seat. Their stories. The nuance of their teaching.  The innate mindfulness, generosity, insight…was thick and palpable.

It felt almost like a sacred experience.  At other times, it felt being initiated into a literal revolution desperately needing to happen.

Most marginalized of all? It’s hard to imagine another group of people more disenfranchised and systematically hurt than those who experience unusual or ‘extreme mental states.’

And yet, we learned how these two women had found not only healing and rich relationships, but a productive, wonderful life helping spark new conversations, pathways and possibilities for literally thousands of others who hear voices.

The turning point for both Lisa and Caroline was finding real, human connection, listening and empathy – no matter how crazy their thoughts and beliefs may have sounded.

That moment of connection had universally been extremely hard to come by…Indeed, like my friend, it was precisely because of how ‘crazy’ they sounded to people, that they struggled to find anyone who might offer real human interaction.  We heard stories of people sharing their heart with another and hearing a response like this:  ‘that anger (or sorrow or elation or pain) is really just a symptom – it’s your disease speaking!’

While that may be re-assuring to some, even comforting – to others it can feel consistently invalidating…like ‘no one is actually listening to me – maybe that says something about me?’

A bigger pattern.  On one level, this seems uniquely invalidating and isolating.  And on another level, it seems to reflect a larger American tendency of not taking those seriously who hold new perspectives and beliefs – or introduce new experiences.

I believe that it’s precisely this difficulty of human connection-when-the-disagreements-are-intense that explains the impact of the Hearing Voices Network over the last 30 years since it was established in Europe. For people who found resistance, control and imposition everywhere they looked, it was revolutionary to find someone – anyone – who didn’t automatically assume illness or a need for ‘intervention.’  It was refreshing to find a space where anything could be shared – no matter what (i.e., no matter whether others agree or believe what they were saying)…

In contrast to the usual approach of having to fix or force or manage or treat, everything about this approach aims at opening the space. And it turns out that in the offering of this kind of space-for-human-connection, listening, respect and dignity – something else happens:  Insight.  Healing.  Affection. Community.

Those are the kind of things the EXCELLENCE research study will be tracking – and I have no doubt they’ll find abundant confirmatory evidence.

There’s another, broader question also worth considering.  What would happen if we brought this same kind of super-spacious mind-set to other American conversations happening today?[3]

In our divided country, for instance, imagine a diverse mixture of Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz supporters sitting together and following the same basic HVN ground rules:

  • Not assuming others’ experience reflects illness (or evil or stupidity).
  • Not focusing every moment on trying to change each other or tell people what to do.
  • Not insisting on particular labels or diagnoses (or insisting that people not have them either).
  • Taking seriously what each of us has to offer, even and especially when we don’t agree or believe what is being shared.
  • Preserving a space for authentic questions and curiosities, as well as ongoing disagreements (to be explored only as people are interested and willing).

What would that mean for our diverse and fractured country? And yes, what could it mean, specifically, for those with unusual mental experiences?

What can it (still) mean for my friend?

I, for one, can’t wait to find out.

Ready to join the revolution?



Jacob Hess teaches Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and co-founded the non-profit, All of Life (, which recently released a free online mindfulness-based class for those facing serious mental and emotional challenges (see Mindweather 101). After completing his PhD dissertation research on contrasting narratives of depression treatment in 2009, Jacob worked as research director at Utah Youth Village, a nonprofit for abused children in the Rocky Mountain region. During this time, he published 13 peer reviewed papers – including an exploration of conflicting narratives for what it means to be “successful” in mental health treatment (Hess & Lacasse, 2010), what it means to “recover” from serious mental or emotional challenges (Hess, Lacasse, et al., 2014) and the brain and body’s role in mental illness (Hess, Gantt, et al., in press). Part of Jacob’s research focus is reviewing risk factor research – as a way to raise awareness among individuals and families facing serious health conditions. As a long-time member of the National Coalition of Dialogue and Deliberation, Jacob believes deep conflicts over both socio-political and health matters call for open-hearted, generous exploration between conflicting perspectives.  He is a partner with Living Room Conversations and director of Village Square, Salt Lake City. Jacob is married to Monique Moore, with three little boys who make sure their daddy smiles at least 9 times a day.

One thought on “In Praise of a Non-Aggressive, Creative Way of Working with Unusual Mental States

  1. Deirdre Oliver says:

    Thank you for this article. Your friend is lucky to have you and I wish him well for the future. I have seen the transformation in someone who had contact with Hearing Voices. It was heart wrenchingly wonderful. Unfortunately mainstream psychiatry is unconvinced and clings to the drug, drug ethos for whatever reason, and the incidence of ECT (shock) is now on the rise for everything. We can only live in hope that the non-aggressive, persistence of Hearing Voices will prevail.

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