Beyond Voice: A project about silence in depression and bipolar

By Dr Dan Degerman and Dr Jae Ryeong Sul, Department of Philosophy, School of Arts

Dr Dan Degerman and Dr Jae Ryeong Sul tell us about their project which seeks to highlight the underappreciated and vital role silence plays in the lives of people with mental illness. In doing so, the project will challenge the denigration of silence in mental health. The project recently received an AHRC Research Development and Engagement Fellowship and runs until June 2025.

When we talk about silence in mental illness, it is nearly always as something harmful that we need to ‘break’. Of course, some silences in and around mental illness should be broken. Think of the silence of someone afraid to talk about their distress because of mental health stigma. Or, think of the silence of someone who wants to share their distress but can’t find the words to make others understand.

However, silence is a diverse experience, as most of us will recognise from our own lives. Silence can be painful, imposed, and disempowering. But it can also be pleasant, chosen, and empowering. While it can feel like a barbed cage that keeps us from saying what we want, it can also feel like an oasis of freedom from other people’s demands.

Why should we think that silence in mental illness is any less diverse? Our AHRC-funded Beyond Voice project suggests there’s good reason not to.

Beyond Voice is a philosophical project that sheds light on the role of silence in the lives of people with depression and bipolar. Our research engages deeply with first-person accounts of people with lived experience of these illnesses from different backgrounds. That involves analysing autobiographical accounts and qualitative research, as well as working with a research advisory group consisting of both experts-by-experience and mental health professionals who provide invaluable guidance on our research.

Mapping the rainbow of silence

So far, our research has shown that many first-person accounts defy common assumptions about silence in depression and bipolar. For one, they suggest that silence can be part of what it means to be depressed. The writer Andrew Solomon, for instance, writes that depression ‘is like going deaf, hearing less and less until a terrible silence is all around you until you cannot make any sound of your own to penetrate the quiet’.

Silence can be painful, imposed, and disempowering. But it can also be pleasant, chosen, and empowering.

By contrast, in the manic episodes that form part of bipolar, the loss of silence can be a source of suffering and longing, as the writer Bassey Ipke suggests in her account of such an episode: ‘The thoughts have started to flood. They tumble and race so quickly that only focusing on [the cab driver] helps slow their circling. … [M]y mind is never quiet’.

These are just two examples of the rainbow of silence experiences – to borrow a metaphor from our advisory group – that people with depression and bipolar report. The first key objective of our 18-month project is to begin to map out that rainbow.

A better understanding of the variety of silences that occur in depression is not simply a matter of dotting some ‘i’s in an otherwise complete picture of depression and bipolar.

A clearer picture of the rainbow of silence will have important practical implications for people with those illnesses and those who want to help them, including friends and family, healthcare professionals, and policymakers. The second and third objectives of Beyond Voice are to draw out those implications.

The implications of silence for mental health

Some implications have already begun to emerge.

Since silence can be a part of what it is to be depressed or a desperate attempt to keep the worst consequences of mania at bay, we need to recognise the potential harm that the blinkered insistence on ‘breaking the silence’ around mental illness can have.

For example, other people’s well-intentioned appeals to share experiences or unsolicited advice can cause more harm than good to an individual whose depression is so severe that they cannot speak and do not even feel the urge to. In such cases, simply sitting with them in silence – honestly acknowledging the depth of their despair and quietly blunting their isolation – may instead be the crucial first step towards providing the appropriate support.

In other words, we must consider how we can help those who want to speak to do so without pathologising and pressurising those who cannot or have good reasons not to.

Our work will continue over the next year and we’d love to hear from you with your own thoughts on and experiences of silence.

Dr Dan Degerman is a Research Fellow in the Department of Philosophy and is interested in issues at the intersection of mental health, emotions, and politics. His first book Political Agency and the Medicalisation of Negative Emotion has just been published in paperback. Dr Jae Ryeong Sul is a Research Associate in the Department of Philosophy with research interests in phenomenology and philosophy of psychiatry. To find out more about the Beyond Voice project, please contact