A Review of the TED Talk “The Voices in My Head” by Eleanor Longden
A Review of the TED Talk “The Voices in My Head” by Eleanor Longden
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A Review of the TED Talk “The Voices in My Head” by Eleanor Longden

Eleanor Longden overcame her diagnosis of schizophrenia to the disbelief of the many psychiatric doctors who attempted to treat her over the years.  These were the doctors that Eleanor said “took a grim view of the voices interpreting everything I said through latent insanity.”  She was given a diagnosis of schizophrenia and saw many hospitalizations.  She even had one doctor tell her “she’d be better off with cancer because cancer was easier to cure than schizophrenia”.

You may be able to relate to the sense of “toxic hopelessness and despair” she felt. I did. I’m Trish from Mental Health Talk and my thanks to Jared for inviting me to share with you.  I am honored to write about this TED Talk that not only changed my perspective on my experiences with mental illness, but on the institution of mental health as a whole.

Eleanor points out that because she was constantly in an environment where the voices were seen as a symptom, her fear intensified and she deteriorated.  The voices became hostile and menacing as she attempted to battle with them.  Eventually she took extreme measures—as promised by the voices to give her life back–to get rid of them to no avail.  She became a “broken and haunted” person who was taken advantage of in every horrible way.

Then she worked with a doctor for a brief period that reinforced in her that recovery was not only possible but inevitable.  She became surrounded by people who had an “unshakeable belief” her psyche could become whole again.

Eleanor says “I used to say these people saved me but what I now know is they did something even more important in that they empowered me to save myself.”

Can you imagine having that kind of support and belief in your recovery?  How different would your outlook on your mental health be?

It’s called the placebo effect.  Something very powerful happens when you BELIEVE those who are treating you and how they are treating you will heal you.  It has been proven time and time again in clinical research trials to result in positive outcomes.

Eleanor is a living example of that.

These people were crucial in her affirming her belief that her voices where a response to childhood trauma.

Her voices were not a symptom.  They were not her enemies.  They were powerful experiences giving her “insight into solvable emotional problems” through metaphorical meaning.

She came to understand that each voice resembled an aspect of her and the strong emotions she had not expressed.

Her biggest revelation was when she realized the most hostile voices were giving a voice to the parts of her most traumatized, and they needed the most compassion and care.

She eventually went off her meds and back to school where she earned a BSc and MSc in psychology, receiving the highest honors.  “Not bad for a mad woman,” Eleanor jokes.

Today Eleanor advocates for her philosophy.  She believes the most important question in psychiatry shouldn’t be “what’s wrong with you?” but “what’s happened to you?”

Though it is not completely clear in her talk, I do think Eleanor still hears voices.  But now she regards them as “creative and ingenious survival strategy” that should be seen “not as an abstract symptom of illness to be endured, but as complex, significant, and meaningful experience to be explored”.

Since watching this talk, I have discovered this is true of the delusional and hallucinatory experiences I still get on occasion.  What an empowering feeling it is to find something meaningful instead of distressing in these experiences.  And by taking these insights and giving those parts of me wanting to be recognized what they need, the experience passes and I become more self-confident in my ability to not only be there for myself, but trust myself again.

I can’t help thinking if I were to instead take my stories of periodic delusions and hallucinations to a psychiatrist, I would most likely end up with more antipsychotic medication.  What a mistake that would be; robbed of my insight and my chance to save myself.

It is worth the visit to Eleanor’s full TED Talk to hear all the details of her experience.

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2 Comments

  1. Trish, thank you for sharing your review here with us! I love the idea of an inevitable recovery. Everyone deserves to have hope and faith in their lives. In my own case I did find that recovery was going to happen regardless. The illness itself was a deconstruction of my psychological framework down to the foundation. It had to crumble to rebuild in a more healthy way. But once the crumbling was done, the building began automatically, almost forcing my own participation by making me interested in these topics. Supporting that viewpoint by creating an atmosphere of positivity is certainly helpful to everyone involved in managing illness. I like how Eleanor as well stopped treating her voices as something bad, but as parts of her that needed help. I feel like schizophrenia is really a sickness of the ego. We all have a running commentary in our head constantly. This is the ego. It’s only when it starts getting in the way of our functioning do we begin to label it schizophrenia. It’s strange that we as a culture treat “voices in our heads” as some super strange thing, when we all have it constantly unless we are meditating. Thanks again, Trish!

    • My pleasure Jared. I love the idea that recovery is inevitable too. I found it to be true in my case as well and even now when I get “symptoms” (which I now call experiences) I do not consider them part of mental ill-health. I consider them feedback. I use my 6th sense to be find the meaning and I have come to believe that all of my mental health “symptoms” are coping mechanisms for survival. Just as Eleanor said in her talk. Eleanor’s views open up so many meaningful and spiritual possibilities to mental illness. I feel this is a discussion that is currently missing in our society.