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Olga Runciman on the Danish Hearing Voices Network

On the future of mental health

Eric Maisel
Source: Eric Maisel

The following interview is part of a “future of mental health” interview series that will be running for 100+ days. This series presents different points of view about what helps a person in distress. I’ve aimed to be ecumenical and included many points of view different from my own. I hope you enjoy it. As with every service and resource in the mental health field, please do your due diligence. If you’d like to learn more about these philosophies, services, and organizations mentioned, follow the links provided.


Interview with Olga Runciman

EM: Can you tell us a little bit about the Danish Hearing Voices Network?

OR: The Danish Hearing voices network has existed for a little over 10 years here in Denmark and yet it has still managed to retain its grassroots touch. We have kept it separate from mainstream, initially because it was seen as odd and harmless; ‘the ‘schizophrenics’ creating an organization for themselves to today where we now play a big role in mental health yet do so primarily from the outside.

The Danish HVN has played a major role in the recovery movement here in Denmark. The fact that people can and do recover from mental distress was a new way of thinking, but that the ‘schizophrenics’ could recover! That flew in the face of established psychiatric science and rhetoric!

Today there are many hearing voices groups; in fact most long-term institutions are proud to advertise they have a hearing voices group. But compared to the number of groups that exist not so many of them are run by voice hearers for voice hearers and I would personally like to see more of those kinds of groups. Groups are found for young people in prisons as well as outside of psychiatry and hospital psychiatry is also now creating voice-hearing groups. Are they good groups? A lot of the time we haven't a clue!

The other arm of the Danish hearing voices network is activism and here we have played a profound role. Our major focus has been addressing the science (or should one say lack of science) of psychiatry and along with our allies we have destabilized the concept and science of biological psychiatry and opened the door for thinking in none biological alternatives.

EM: Can you tell us a little bit about your experiences as a psychiatric nurse and as a psychiatric survivor?

OR: I see my work life in 3 stages. Working as a psychiatric nurse where I believed in what I had been taught and told i.e., that mental distress was an illness due to genetic and neurotransmitter defects helped or cured by neuroleptics. However, I heard voices, have done so since I was a child, and could not figure out how to address this as a psychiatric nurse as this was a primary symptom of the dreaded disease ‘schizophrenia’.

Then I became a ward of the psychiatric system with this devastating incurable mental disease, ‘schizophrenia.’ I entered a Kafkaesque world where I experienced the world from the other side and at the same time all that I had been taught and told terrified me. From these perspectives I fulfilled the criteria of a ‘schizophrenic’ and I saw no exit from that in my mind and once labeled neither was there an escape from it or from psychiatry. I like many before me became crushed by the machinations of the psychiatric system and ended up believing I suffered from this incurable disease and I lived as a chronic paranoid schizophrenic for 10 years. I did this on the highest social benefits as I was viewed as having no possibility whatsoever of ever working again.

The third stage is the present one. I am working again in mental health and outside of it, only today I am 180 degrees away from my thinking as a psychiatric nurse. I am outraged that we as a society have created this lucrative construction that is psychiatry with the right to define and force those who come under its gaze.

At the same time I am aware of the role of mental health professionals for I have been one. For they too are institutionalized, indoctrinated and socially molded by psychiatry while being in a position of power. Most want to help but when done through the lens of psychiatry the help often becomes harmful and professionals are psychiatrically blinded to that aspect. To see that requires an existential, ground-shaking reevaluation of everything one has been taught followed by the pain of acknowledging the harm that one may have done to many distressed people while in one’s care.

EM: What do you see as some possibilities or pathways for Postpsychiatry?

OR: Both Postpsychiatry and HVN advocate the importance of meaning and understanding as significant. So Postpsychiatry, by viewing distress from a multifaceted perspective and taking a more nuanced approach, is not trapped in a monologue of madness. Treating patients' experiences as meaningful is profoundly threatening to the medical model of madness that is dependent on meaninglessness or the supposition that lived lives are of secondary importance. Indeed, the threat posed to the medical model by considering madness meaningful is overwhelming. It also becomes clear why there is such resistance to acknowledging the discrepancy between psychiatry and service-user knowledge.

Postpsychiatry by the way should not be confused with critical psychiatry though it has evolved from there. Critical psychiatry covers a broad range of opinions and is concerned with how much can be achieved within psychiatry; Postpsychiatry is linked to postmodernism and does not seek to find solutions within psychiatry. Instead it is advocated that we should be moving beyond psychiatry.

EM: What are your thoughts on the current, dominant paradigm of diagnosing and treating mental disorders and the use of so-called psychiatric medication to treat mental disorders in children, teens and adults?

OR: I am as I wrote earlier outraged by the current dominant psychiatric paradigm. However in our neoliberal individualistic society psychiatry fits right in there with its notion of the quick fix and the idea it has the solution for those individuals who do not fit societies norms.

Diagnosing a construct makes it highly problematic as there is no way to prove or disprove the diagnosis. Thus we have the absurd situation of groups of so called biologically defective people doing everything they can to get out of psychiatry and a system doing everything including human rights abuses to keep them in their system. On the opposite end of the scale we have those who say they are suffering a mental illness wanting to be admitted but psychiatry does not believe them.

I view psychiatric medication rather like cigarettes only far more dangerous. Years ago the tobacco industry did exactly the same as the pharmaceutical industry is doing today, peddling their wares, vehemently denying the health hazard their products were posing. Gradually society became aware of the fact that cigarettes were damaging and killing the people who consumed them despite those who saw fit to profit from cigarettes denying, lying and lobbying for the opposite.

The pharmaceutical industry is doing the same, peddling their pills while vehemently denying the devastating health hazards neuroleptics pose, yet here we are not talking of ‘voluntary smoking’ for pleasure. We are talking about the most precious thing we have, our health. By targeting socially constructed diagnoses for children and adults who do not behave in an accepted fashion, medication has become a source of power and control that has moved into the very fabric of our society. Thus to use the analogy of smoking we are giving adults all the way down to babies cigarettes on the pretext it is good for them and those who say no they do not want cigarettes, are forced to smoke them.

EM: If you had a loved one in emotional or mental distress, what would you suggest that he or she do or try?

OR: Anything as long as it has nothing to do with psychiatry!

Open dialogue


Healing with friends and loved ones


From Olga: I was once labeled ‘schizophrenic’ and told therapy was not suitable for someone like me. This message of hopelessness was something I did not want others to experience. That is why I chose to become a psychologist and today I have my own practice where I have specialized in helping people with what many call psychosis. You can follow me on linkedin, facebook and very soon my website


Eric Maisel, Ph.D., is the author of 40+ books, among them The Future of Mental Health, Rethinking Depression, Mastering Creative Anxiety, Life Purpose Boot Camp and The Van Gogh Blues. Write Dr. Maisel at, visit him at, and learn more about the future of mental health movement at

To learn more about and/or to purchase The Future of Mental Health visit here

To see the complete roster of 100 interview guests, please visit here:

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