Psych Central

Mandela interpreterA sign language interpreter hearing voices has caught everyone off guard while on the job at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service.

Thamsanqa Jantjiehe was as surprised as anyone else by the voices that crashed the party. These voices don’t call ahead, you see.  At the most inopportune times, they crash the head.

The word “unbelievable” is our most overused adjective, but this story truly was. Thus the world was atwitter Thursday that a man with a diagnosis of schizophrenia and a mental health history of violence had been on stage right beside President Obama–the politely unstated subtext here is that a schizo was within stabbing distance of the leader of the free world despite the highest security ever.

Jantjiehe’s widely misunderstood psychotic episode has seen the deaf and mental illness communities lining up on opposite sides. Meanwhile, cue the late night talk show jokes. 

To me, the missing sidebar iis, what would Mandela have done? What would the Great Man have told the world about this poor man disabled by voices? And what kind words might he have had for the man himself?

Hearing Voices Cartoon

I can almost see Mandela smiling down on us. There’s no doubt he’d have shown interest in his experience. Surely he would have a compassionate ear tuned to this man’s plight.

An inquisitive man, Mandela might’ve asked Jantjie if the deaf are able to hear voices when they’re hallucinating. They do, by they way, though only those who’ve heard sound before. Others see images of people signing or of lips moving.

Extraordinary Experiences Are Not Unusual

Hearing voicees and seeing angels entering the stadium, as the 34 year-old South African nervously recalled, can throw a guy for a loop. It is a non-ordinary experience, to be sure, but it is by no means an unusual experience for tens of millions who have schizophrenia.

To me, though, the man’s mild disposition in the throes of an episode was the real marvel.  Here he was hallucinating his mind out, hearing voices, seeing angels, and he was perfectly harmless.

To hear him tell it, hearing voices while trying to sign language interpret for the eyes of the world can be a real pressure cooker.

“I was alone in a very dangerous situation,” he was quoted as telling a Johannesburg reporter for The Star.  “I tried to control myself and not show the world what was going on. I am very sorry; it’s the situation I found myself in.”

What are the odds? One in a hundred, to be precise. That’s how many people there are with schizophrenia in any country, city, town, village or gathering.

What are the odds of anyone–anybody at all–hearing voices?

Only one in ten, actually. That’s how many people (privately surveyed) report having an auditory hallucination either now and then or on a regular basis–many more than would ever care to admit it publically.

Neurobiologists have managed to pinpoint the voices in the auditory cortex. MRI scans show the brain’s auditory cortex is over-active during voice hallucinations. It beams from blood flow just as it does from normal sound.

Brain imaging showing that the cortex lights up is proof that auditory hallucination is real. Whether it can provide medical guidance on how to help people having the experience is too soon to say.

Deaf Schizophrenia Community

Since the prevalence of schizophrenia within this deaf community is roughly equivalent to the general population–one in a hundred adults worldwide–the study of the deaf is hot research topic. Researchers have probed whether the “voices” described by people born profoundly deaf are truly auditory in nature.

In one study, individuals were shown a series of 94 cards describing and illustrating possible voice hallucination perceptions such as “voice uses sign language” and “voice is in front of me.” The people then pointed to indicate which card best matched their experience.

Only the partially deaf perceived the voices as articulated utterances. The profoundly deaf could not say if their perceptions were voices in the auditory sense.

While it may be unexpected that the profoundly deaf who have never known sound do not hear hallucinations–they see them–this man on stage at the Mandela memorial was doing both.

He may turn out to be a total fraud, but my gut tells me he is authentic and genuine and even brave to speak up about his auditory and visual hallucinations.

We should be congratulating this man. Instead I feel sorry that he’s become a human punchline.



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    Last reviewed: 14 Dec 2013

APA Reference
Tracey, P. (2013). What Would Mandela Say to the Man Hearing Voices?. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 17, 2014, from



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