“The voices in my head” by Eleanor Longden is a Ted Talk that explores Longden’s experiences of hearing voices, how it impacted her life, and encourages us to think differently about mental health struggles.
When Longden started college, despite appearing happy, she was deeply depressed, insecure, fearful, and empty. Shortly after the second semester began, Longden started hearing voices that would narrate her experiences in 3rd person. Longden believed that these voices were a reflection of something much deeper and existed to communicate something to her. Unfortunately, her friend, doctors and society did not feel the same way. Longden was admitted to a hospital and diagnosed with schizophrenia. As a result, her symptoms worsened and she became more vulnerable. She started experiencing even worse humiliation, hopelessness, as well as even further discrimination, verbal, physical, and sexual abuse. Longden felt so alone and rejected by society that she felt like the voices were her biggest perpetrators, as well as her only companions. Slowly, Longden began recognizing that the voices were a response to meaningful life events and a source of insight for emotional problems. She started to change her attitude and perspective and started to thank them for helping her recognize her problems and fears. She also started to assert herself and communicate back with them to try and understand and support each other. She found that each voice was closely related to emotions that she had not yet processed or resolved. Longden eventually graduated with a degree in psychology and published successful work in the field. She highlights that a key question in psychiatry should not be what is wrong with a patient, but rather what has happened to them. In addition, she stresses that we should focus on understanding ourselves, and less on what society tells us.
Medicalization is the increasing influence and power of the medical profession on defining what is normal and healthy. Medicalization has deep effects on society and often leads to discrimination and further problems for individuals who fall outside of what is deemed “normal” and “healthy”. Interestingly, medicalization is deeply rooted in cultural norms and standards. These differences in standards across cultures further exemplifies why it is so problematic to trust and believe so deeply in the values of our particular medical establishment. In the west, we value science, often idealizing what is measurable and “knowable” within our reality. In contrast, other cultures, such as in many Southeast Asian countries, people believe in ghosts, spirits, and openly discuss encounters with these beings. While it is considered normal in Thailand to see and interact with ghosts, in the western world, if a person claimed to talk to spirits and interact with ghosts, they would might be institutionalized and ostracized for being crazy. Medicalization also affects physical health and beauty standards. A clear example of this is the difference between ideals of youthfulness and good health in Asian vs western countries. In Longden’s case, because the voices were outside of what is considered normal and healthy, she was labeled a schizophrenic, ostracized, and faced institutionalization that worsened her experiences. Prior to sharing her experiences with her friend and psychiatrist, despite the struggle, she was never violent, harmful, or put anyone else in danger. Her symptoms and experiences got much worse after beginning traditional “treatment”. This is an example of iatrogenesis, which is the further sickness and injury that is caused by the health care system. The health care system fails to view normality on a spectrum, and therefore fails to help “capable” people who are somewhat “abnormal”. Instead, they deem Longden to be crazy, unhealthy, and incapable of controlling key aspects of her own life. Agency is the idea that people can control and change aspects of their socially constructed lives. It is similar to possessing free will. The medical industry believes that if Longden is hearing voices, then she does not deserve, nor is she capable of possessing free will and agency. They argue that she must be drugged, removed from society, and effectively lose all freedom. By controlling standards of health and normality, the medical establishment takes away control and agency from individuals by having them rely further on a system to help them achieve “ideal” standards. The medical establishment first defines what is normal, and then offers solutions to make people fall in line with these standards.
There is no objective and ideal standard of health, beauty and normality. Similar to gender, it is all on a spectrum. It is interesting to explore this topic during a time of a global pandemic. Because of coronavirus, we are forced to rely even more heavily on health care workers and medical professionals. While we should support, respect and appreciate medical workers for everything they are doing, it is equally important to respect people from other backgrounds, and those who remain vulnerable and fall victim to the medical industry. There are problems within our culture of romanticizing science, medicalization, and the reliance on the medical industry. Health and normality are on a spectrum. The medical industry is not immune to corruption.