Although the way we view and support people with mental health difficulties has improved over the years, experiences such as hearing voices and seeing visions are often still associated with “severe and enduring mental illness”. But what is less well-known about these voices and visions is that they are surprisingly common – especially when growing up.
Around 8% of young people are thought to hear voices at some stage in childhood, with up to 75% having a one-off experience of voice hearing. This makes hearing voices about as common for young people as having asthma or dyslexia. For many children, then, it seems that hearing voices is a pretty normal part of growing up.
Research shows, the experience of hearing voices that others can’t hear – also called auditory verbal hallucinations in traditional psychiatric terms – is not usually upsetting for many children. The experience of hearing voices also doesn’t tend to last too long – meaning it can often be something children grow out of or overcome in time.
Nevertheless, for some young people, the experience can carry on for many years and cause confusion and distress – not only for the young person but for the family as a whole.
Learning from young people
Compared to adult voice-hearers, relatively little research or analysis has been carried out with young people who hear voices. Consequently, we don’t really know much about how young people make sense of these experiences or how they might look for help.
This is one of the main reasons why we have recently set up the Young Voices Study. Over recent months, we have been working with young people and their families to explore their views on what it’s actually like to hear voices in childhood and how parents can support their children through the experiences.
As well as speaking with young people and their parents or guardians in the northwest of England, we have also developed two online surveys that can be accessed internationally – one for young people who hear voices and one for their parents or guardians.