Voices in My Head

Hearing voices in modern culture is almost always diagnosed as some sort of mental illness. Ditto seeing things that aren’t there. Some cultures and religions may have a different take, at least in certain cases. Since my novel is fantasy, when my character hears voices, they’re real.

Twelve year old Ruth starts hearing the voice of a woman and seeing visions and is afraid to tell anyone about them. When her cousin Phoebe finds out, she forces Ruth to tell Phoebe’s mother, Pam.

Pam does her best to help Ruth navigate what might be mental illness (if not a temporary blip) and/or a spiritual crisis of sorts. Pam is a practicing Baptist, raised in the black Baptist churches of Houston, Texas, and Ruth is a Jew, raised secular.

Christopher C. H. Cook discusses the teasing out of these issues from a Christian perspective.

How may “erroneous perceptions” be distinguished from genuine spiritual experience in the lives of those who report experiences of seeing visions and hearing voices? When someone claims to have heard the voice of God, should they be encouraged to treat this voice as divine, or should they be encouraged to question it as coming from somewhere else, perhaps from their own unconscious?

Hearing Voices, Demonic and Divine: Scientific and Theological Perspectives, by Christopher C. H. Cook.

How might a Christian characterize what others may call a hallucination?

Religious experiences involving visual hallucinations, many of which
may also include voices (and are thus multimodal), are usually referred to as visionary. In the context of Christian mystical experience, voices are often referred to as “locutions”, but this term does not have the same popularity of contemporary usage, and so there is no widely accepted equivalent term to “visionary” for the auditory verbal component of a religious experience. However, many people reporting their religious experiences of hearing a voice, whilst not seeing themselves as “voice hearers”, do still refer to “the voice”.

Voices are rather common in some religious groups, but not in others.

We have little information about how frequently voices heard are understood as being “religious” – whether because they are understood to emanate from a religious source (e.g. God, saints or spiritual beings such as angels and demons), or because they have explicitly religious content. In one sample of college students 8.7 per cent and in another 11.5 per cent, reported hearing the voice of God. However, Barrett and Etheridge comment in their study that “several of our subjects seemed to have trouble discriminating between actually hearing a voice they thought to be God’s voice and ‘knowing’ that God was telling them something without actually hearing a voice outside of their head”. 

Mary Schwab (1977), who did not ask her southern US sample to distinguish between seeing and hearing “things that other people don’t think are there”, reported that hallucinations were experienced more by “fundamentalist” religious denominations. She also found a higher positive response amongst black respondents. Thus 9.2 per cent of white Baptists, but 16.3 per cent of black Baptists gave a positive response. At the other end of the spectrum, no positive responses were reported amongst Episcopalians or Jews.

Ezekiel hears the voice, represented by the Hand of God, Dura-Europos synagogue, synagogue wall painting, 3rd century CE.

Jasmine Harris discusses the black Pentecostal church, which has a lot in common with Baptists but is not the same. Many of her more general arguments would still hold.

African Americans do not seek or receive mental health services as much as their Caucasian counterparts. There is a myriad of factors that influence the reasons why many African Americans are not seeking services, including, stigma, mistrust, affordability, accessibility, and availability of services. Because of these factors, many African Americans tend to seek psychological help from their religious advisors.

African American Pentecostal Clergy Members’ Perceptions Of Mental Health and Their Subsequent Referral Practices, dissertation by Jasmine Harris

She cites studies that show that many Christians have had the experience of contact with God, including hearing voices (but it’s unclear if this is an actual voice or just thoughts).

[Within Presbyterian clergy] hearing the voice of God or seeing Jesus the Christ may be viewed as religious experiences, psychotic experiences, or both depending upon the religious and/or mental health professional interpreting the experience. The content and context of what is reported to the mental health professional or religious advisor can delineate between a psychotic experience and a religious one…The clergy members in this study all endorsed that they have been exposed to psychosis within their ministries; however, 85% of those clergy members also reported that they have never received formal training in ways to identify the difference between the two. 

…70% of the clergy members reported that they have interpreted internal experiences of God as feeling his “inner presence” or inner peace. They identified these experiences as being most present during prayer, while dreaming, hearing God’s voice in the inner-man (internally), through Scriptures, and feeling led by God. The external experience of God specifically involved the activation of one’s senses, through sight, sound, and touch. Approximately 70% of the participants also endorsed that they experienced external experiences of God, including seeing a bright light, seeing Jesus, feeling God’s healing power, and hearing God’s voice.

Fonda Bryant, in her essay about her personal experience of mental illness talks about many of the barriers within the black community to getting medical help. While I wouldn’t take her experiences as universal they are probably fairly widespread.

African-Americans are not immune from mental health conditions, and 5.6% of us die by suicide. Up to about two million (10%) African-American men live with depression…When I arrived at the psychiatric hospital and called my mom to let her know where I was, the first thing she said to me spoke volumes: “You just need to be stronger.” This is a battle cry for African-Americans.

Getting help for a mental health condition in my culture’s eyes is a sign of weakness, a personal flaw—not a legitimate, clinical condition. In fact, 63%  of African-Americans believe that a mental health condition is a personal sign of weakness. To be honest, I believe that number is higher…

According to a recent Gallup survey, African-Americans are the most religious culture in the United States. Our deep-rooted religious beliefs go all the way back to slavery, when religion was the one solid foundation we had during those times. Our ancestors then—like we African-Americans now—lived with depression, anxiety, bipolar and PTSD but back then, there weren’t any names for those conditions. Back then, people battling a mental health condition were simply locked up, wandered the streets or even put to death.

With all that my culture had to deal with throughout history, present-day African-Americans feel we don’t need help mentally. All we need to do today is the same our ancestors did, which is: “Pray about it. Give it to God.”…when it comes to mental health in the African-American community, there is very little compassion or empathy.

You Can’t “Pray Away” a Mental Health Condition, By Fonda Bryant, blog post on National Alliance on Mental Illness.

In my StackExchange question, Writing in a Christian Voice, I ask how to translate these issues to dialogue. How would Pam speak to Ruth about her experiences? The answers to my question address both Ruth’s spiritual vs. mental state and the voice of a black Baptist character in general.


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