On Monday, Jamie Rosenberg was shocked when she went to rent a car from a Budget location in San Diego and saw that the company was advertising its GPS features with a joke about “hearing voices.”
The Budget ad reads: “If you hear voices, it’s completely normal.” But as Rosenberg pointed out, auditory hallucinations are no laughing matter—in fact, they can be a matter of life and death.
Last October, Rosenberg’s 36-year-old brother was a victim of suicide after struggling with mental illness and auditory hallucinations.
Rosenberg’s tweet about the insensitivity (and her posts about the ad on Facebook too) had immediate results. In a direct message that she shared with the Daily Dot, Budget offered a personal apology. They also pulled the ads nationwide.
Budget also told Rosenberg that the ad’s creators are no longer with the company. A Daily Dot email to Budget’s press office did not immediately get a response.
According to Jean Kim, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at George Washington University, auditory hallucinations can often be scary—and can sometimes command those experiencing them to do things.
“Usually the voices that happen are in the context of what mood state they are in,” Kim told the Daily Dot. “If they are manic, they might hear the voice of God or a voice telling them they are God. In depression, it can be very negative. It’s not uncommon to hear berating, unhappy voices.”
Basically, hearing voices is not a joke.
Kim said that auditory hallucinations occur most frequently with schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders, but are sometimes experienced by people with bipolar disorder and depression as well.
“Medication is usually the first line for auditory hallucinations,” said Kim. “Therapy is also important to give insight, to help people become more aware of the fact that they are ill. It can help give them more control.”
While the experience of seeing the ad was traumatic for Rosenberg, the fact that the car rental company listened to her concerns was empowering—she called it “justice.”
However, what stood out most to Rosenberg was the fact that the exchange took place during Mental Health Awareness Month. All throughout May, the National Alliance on Mental Illness encourages people to seek treatment for mental health conditions, and especially focuses on eradicating the stigma around mental illness that prevents many people from getting the appropriate care.
Sometimes, stigma can manifest through a person hiding their condition from loved ones, or refusing treatment that is direly needed.
“We didn’t know what was happening until a few days before his death,” Rosenberg told the Daily Dot. She explained that her brother hadn’t wanted to take medication and left the hospital.
“I believe in his rights as a patient,” she said. “I just wish he was still here.”
Eradicating stigma is one of the first steps toward ensuring that more people seek treatment for potentially life-threatening mental health conditions like Eric Rosenberg’s. As part of Mental Health Awareness Month, people from a variety of backgrounds are coming out on social media about the conditions they live with—using hashtags like #StigmaFree and #MentalHealthMonth.
For the Rosenberg family, part of the healing process is encouraging people to donate to organizations like the Icarus Project, which brings together people with mental health conditions and their loved ones to talk openly about the realities of mental illness. The Icarus Project was founded in 2002 by friends of Sera Bilizikian, whose death by suicide came after a struggle with bipolar disorder. [Full disclosure: The author also knew Bilizikian personally].
For doctors like Kim, it’s clear that hearing voices needs to be taken very seriously. She said that rates of suicide are higher among those who experience auditory hallucinations.
“Mental illness is extremely commonplace, a lot of people are suffering from it,” said Kim. “A lot of people are afraid or ashamed to admit they have a condition. The more we let people know that it’s OK to seek help, the more they can live a fulfilled life.”