There is something of a sea change in the way we understand experiences that have traditionally been labelled as psychotic. In our culture at least, experiences such as hearing voices or seeing visions have long been viewed by the medical establishment as unequivocal symptoms of mental illness. Treatment has tended to focus on the suppression of such “symptoms” using antipsychotic medication.
Research (often funded by drugs companies) has been largely concerned with the brain as a physical organ, rather than with the person within whose head it is housed, or indeed with their life experience. And, because of the presumption that psychotic symptoms are the preserve of mentally ill people, estimates of the numbers affected have been based on the numbers who have received a particular diagnosis.
But a report published last week by the British Psychological Society’s division of clinical psychology, challenges many of these assumptions.Understanding Psychosis and Schizophrenia presents a compelling case for trying to understand psychotic experiences as opposed to merely categorising them. It argues that such experiences can be understood from a psychological perspective, in the same way as other thoughts and feelings, rather than being placed on the other side of an artificial sick/healthy divide.
And, indeed, they appear to be much more common than is frequently supposed. According to the report, up to 10% of the population has heard a voice speaking when nobody was there and almost one in three holds beliefs that might be considered paranoid. Two in three people who had heard voices or seen visions did not seek help because they were untroubled by them. And, of course, there is huge diversity in the way such experiences are understood and valued in different cultures.
For those who find their experiences unwelcome and disturbing (and they can be extremely disturbing; I don’t think anyone questions that) the range of help on offer is decidedly limited. Despite the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence recommending that everyone with a diagnosis of schizophrenia is offered cognitive behaviour therapy(CBT), only one in 10 has access to it. Treatment by medication alone, forcibly if needed, is the norm.
It is widely accepted that early life experience, trauma, abuse and deprivation greatly increase the risk of developing psychosis. Indeed,research suggests that experiencing multiple childhood traumas gives approximately the same risk of developing psychosis as smoking does for developing lung cancer.
Many people object to the psychotic label because they consider their experiences a natural reaction to the abuse they have suffered, and even a vital survival tool. What they want above all is space and time to talk about their experiences and to make sense of them. It is shocking how few are given this opportunity.
Of course, psychological approaches to helping those with psychosis will not suit everyone. There are those for whom a diagnosis can come as a welcome relief. Many people find medication helpful, as treatment on its own or alongside talking therapies.
In fact, one of the most persuasive messages of the report is that people should be allowed to understand their experience in their own way, without professionals insisting on a particular interpretation.
It is a highly collaborative approach and fitting that at least a quarter of those who contributed to the report have lived experience of psychosis. Their opinions and experiences are as varied as you would expect with any group of individuals but together they comprise an enormously powerful and vivid testimony to the full range of human experience and to the many and varied ways in which we can help each other to make sense of it.