Unusual, psychotic-like symptoms, such as hearing voices, are not as rare among the general population as you might think. For example, it’s estimated that ten per cent of us hear voices that aren’t there, with only a small minority of hearers likely to ever receive a clinical diagnosis. According to a new study, this means that the factors that cause psychotic-like symptoms are likely different from those that lead to a diagnosis of pathological psychosis. Charles Heriot-Maitland and his colleagues argue that this distinction has been missed by the majority of past studies that hunted the causes of psychosis by focusing only on patients, neglecting those who live happily with their psychotic-like experiences.
To make a start rectifying this situation, Heriot-Maitland’s team interviewed six patients with psychosis (recruited via psychosis teams in SE England) and six “healthy” non-patients, who reported similar unusual experiences (recruited via UK networks involved with spiritual or psychic phenomena). Across both groups, these experiences included: receiving visions from God, hearing voices, and feeling that their body had been taken over. Based on their symptoms alone, you couldn’t tell which group a participant belonged to – clinical or non-clinical. The researchers asked all the participants open-ended questions about the circumstances that led to the onset of their unusual experiences, how they felt about them, and how their friends, relatives and other people had responded.
Using a qualitative method called Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis, the researchers looked for emerging themes in the participants’ answers. Both similarities and differences emerged. In both groups, their unusual psychotic experiences had started after a period of negative emotion, most often accompanied by feelings of isolation and deep contemplation about the meaning of life. However, the groups differed in how they responded to and perceived their odd experiences. Members of the non-clinical group had been more aware of non-medical interpretations of their symptoms; they viewed them as transient and desirable; and people close to them shared this non-pathologising perspective. By contrast, the patients encountered invalidating, medical interpretations of their experiences and were themselves less able to accept their experiences and to incorporate them into their personal and social worlds.
From a theoretical point of view, Heriot-Maitland and his colleagues said there was a need for a more precise approach to the study of psychosis, which distinguishes risk factors for psychotic experiences from risk factors for actual clinical vulnerability. “It would seem that the more out-of-the-ordinary experiences are associated with clinical psychosis, the less chance people have of recognising their desirability, transiency, and psychological benefits, and the more chance they have of detrimental clinical consequences.”
The researchers added that this has important clinical implications: “psychotic experiences should be normalised,” they said, “and people with psychosis should be helped to re-connect the meaning of their out-of-the-ordinary experiences with the genuine emotional and existential concerns that preceded them.” They also acknowledged that more studies, including quantitative investigations, are needed to build on this initial work.
Heriot-Maitland, C., Knight, M., and Peters, E. (2011). A qualitative comparison of psychotic-like phenomena in clinical and non-clinical populations. British Journal of Clinical Psychology DOI: 10.1111/j.2044-8260.2011.02011.x
Further reading: The British Psychological Society’s response to the planned changes to the DSM – psychiatry’s diagnostic code. In its response the BPS airs its concerns about the over-medicalisation of people’s experiences.