Big Pharma may not like the results of a study that came out of the UK this week – but it is good news for approximately 21 million people across the world who suffer from schizophrenia and have been undergoing treatment with costly, dangerous and – in 25 percent of cases – even ineffective neuroleptic medications such as Abilify. A new alternative treatment gives schizophrenics an opportunity to confront their demons directly.

One of the major symptoms of schizophrenia is the hearing of voices. These voices are usually threatening, critical and derogatory, inflicting severe damage on patients’ psyches. Those suffering from schizophrenia often feel powerless when they hear such voices, which are auditory hallucinations created in their minds. In a recent study published in The Lancet Psychiatry, researchers found that by giving these voices a persona – in other words, a face – and forcing them out of the shadows of the mind and into the daylight, patients were able to overcome them.

The study involved 150 subjects who had been hearing voices for 20 years or more. Half of the participants received counseling only; the other half worked with therapists who assisted them in creating an avatar, or digital representation of the primary voice they had been hearing. A patient would determine how the avatar looked and sounded. Over the course of six sessions of 50 minutes, the therapist would provide the voice of the avatar as the patient finally got the chance to confront his or her psychological abusers in visible form.

As the avatar hurled insults and abuse with statements such as “you’re rubbish, you’re a waste of space,” the patient was encouraged to respond, telling it to shut up or leave. During the sessions, therapists would also coach their patients, encouraging them to become more assertive in standing up to their demons. Gradually, the avatars would start backing down – and even make positive statements to patients.

Out of 75 participants in the avatar group, seven – nearly 10 percent – stopped hearing voices altogether. In contrast, two of 75 subjects who received counseling only reported that their voices had ceased.

It should be noted that all participants in the study continued taking their medications. However, Dr. Thomas Craig of King’s College in London says that among those who worked with avatars, there were “really large and significant decreases in the amount of distress people felt in relation to their voices, the number of times a day they heard the voices, and the extent to which they felt overpowered by the voice.” He adds, “The whole experience changes from something that’s very frightening to something that’s much more in the person’s control.”

Craig acknowledges that neuroleptics are “helpful to a point,” but anticipates a time when avatar therapy will be a first-line treatment for those suffering from schizophrenia.

K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues. In addition to writing for The Ring of Fire, he is the author of two published novels: Tamanous Cooley, a darkly comic environmental twist on Dante's Inferno, and The Missionary's Wife, a story of the conflict between human nature and fundamentalist religious dogma. When not engaged in journalistic or literary pursuits, K.J. works as an entertainer and film composer.