Yesterday, an advocate for the homeless was posting on Facebook about a man she was concerned about who has schizophrenia and is off of his medication. She said, “Tom is talking to his imaginary friends again.”
I would hope that an advocate for the homeless would know better than to call auditory hallucinations, “imaginary friends,” but in this case, I was disappointed.
Just to be clear, voices are not “imaginary friends.” People who hear voices don’t make the voices up. Somehow this makes it sound cute and harmless and that people who hear voices are somehow grown up children and playing some childish game.
Having schizophrenia, hallucinating or hearing voices isn’t like the character Robin Williams plays in Fisher King. We aren’t the “adorable madman.” (In the Fisher King, William’s character experiences a trauma and has a break from reality. The character is innocent, goofy, charming and searching for the Holy Grail).
Calling auditory hallucinations “imaginary friends” undermines the seriousness of a mental illness and the control that a person has over their symptoms. It also suggests as I mentioned before, that the person hearing the voices is playing or somehow childlike.
I don’t know anyone who has heard voices that would consider voices their “friends.” Most people that hear voices consider them an unwanted and intrusive symptom of their illness. In many cases, voices can be threatening, abusive and difficult to have to hear.
I know there is a movement especially on social media against politically correct language, for instance, me preferring to be called a person with schizophrenia rather than a schizophrenic makes some people angry and annoyed. Some people argue that we have gone too far in our desire to have people refer to us in certain ways and with certain words and language. Language is important and can shape the way we see people and react to people. If someone calls me schizophrenic that means they put my illness before my humanity. I don’t like to give my illness the primary spot in my life, and I would hope that people could understand that without becoming annoyed or angry.
In the case of calling a symptom of a mental illness, “imaginary friends,” I don’t even think political correctness comes into play. It is simply wrong, misleading, and demeaning to the person who is ill.
Hearing voices is a serious symptom of a severe mental illness, there is nothing cute or playful about it. Making voices seem cute and childish keeps those people who don’t experience voices, from experiencing the full amount of empathy and respect for a person who is suffering.
Let’s take steps to eliminate our misunderstandings and try to build a bridge between those who experience symptoms of mental illness and those who do not.