I listened intently as the man told his story of homelessness and his struggles with mental illness. I had suspected that his indulgence in alcohol and drugs had taken him to some pretty dark places, but I hadn’t heard his whole story. As he wrapped it up he said, “I no longer hear voices…and I don’t talk back to them either.” The room broke into peals of laughter, as if what he was saying was meant to be funny when clearly his intent was the opposite. Was the group just expressing relief at the end of a harrowing story, or was this stigma at play? Judging from their response, I’d have to go with the latter, and that made my heart sink. I had to speak up. How do we still consider the torment of mental illness to be a source of humor?
When a normal person says something like “A little voice in my head said, ‘Go to the grocery’,” that “voice” is their own internal dialogue. It is not a product of psychosis.
A “little voice” tells you which toy to pick out for your niece or nephew; another tells you to check your watch to make sure that you don’t miss the bus. These are your thoughts. They aren’t actually manifested as concrete voices—it’s a manner of speech as you relate your story. You’re demonstrating that you were absentmindedly going about your day when you suddenly realized that you had something important to do, something that you didn’t want to forget. But you’re not hearing voices.
I have schizophrenia. When I’ve heard voices come from outside my head as if someone were speaking directly to me—only there’s no one there— that’s the kind of voice one hears in an auditory hallucination. There’s nothing funny about that kind of voice. It’s a jarring experience, one that never feels commonplace. These are voices that belittle, voices that badger, taunt, and demand. I have no control over them organically; anti-psychotic medication has helped to suppress them. And yes, I have often talked back to them, as I would any other voice coming from a person standing next to me. But is that something worth laughing at?
Why is this symptomatic earmark considered a thing of comedy when it is clearly disturbing and sometimes harmful to the person enduring it? Is there any other symptom of mental illness more commonly ridiculed than the hearing of voices? I can’t think of an equivalent in the medical world that garners the laughter and demeaning cruelty of auditory hallucinations. Do we universally laugh at a concussion? Does hilarity ensue at the mention of cancer? Absurd to consider, yet we don’t think twice about giggling at a person beleaguered by voices.
The stereotype of the person talking to themselves is a common trope in theater, film, and literature. Why is that? Perhaps it’s meant to signify that one has lost touch with reality; the audience’s fear of losing control is so ingrained that they need to laugh to show their discomfort. Maybe the screenwriter inserts the scene into the movie to guarantee a few well-timed chuckles. Is this an irresponsible perpetuation of stigma, or merely pandering to a crowd already primed to mock? It’s a chicken-or-egg scenario, but should be considered a source of outrage either way.
Some might say that I’m being “too sensitive”. Maybe I’d do better just to let the laughter continue, passing it over as if nothing’s really happening, you know, call myself an advocate in word only. Not likely. If I have to fight back against the voices that have plagued me since I was a child, then I have every right to speak out against the stigma and discrimination inherent in the public’s use of ridicule of the mentally ill for entertainment purposes.
Am I taking umbrage a bit too far? I think not. I wouldn’t belittle a person for the color of their skin or their sexual preference, and I don’t stand idly by when someone else does. How is this any different? Hearing voices is no laughing matter. In fact, in some cases it’s dead serious. When command voices were telling me to kill myself, you can bet I wasn’t laughing, and neither were the hospital staff or my friends when I went inpatient for attempted suicide. Make no mistake, the unconscionable laughter can be as denigrating as outright prejudice.
Let’s work together to end this inexcusable behavior. There’s plenty of wonderful ways to generate laughter without having to make fun of a person caught in the talons of mental illness. There is no debate here. That laughter is a form of bullying. When it begins, open up a conversation. Share your story. Create the solution.