An unprecedented study of young people has provided a rare insight into the experiences of children who hear voices.
Researchers at Manchester Metropolitan University and the University of Manchester have been asking youngsters and their families to complete an international online survey to help better understand the nature and impact of auditory hallucinations – hearing voices that others cannot.
The first analysis of the data collected through the Young Voices study provides an illumination into the lives of young people aged between 7 and 18.
It is hoped the results of the study will help shape future interventions and support services for children who hear voices, based on their experiences.
Voices appear gradually
Dr Sarah Parry, Senior Lecturer and Clinical Psychologist at Manchester Metropolitan University, said: “The voices seem to appear gradually and what happens is that the young person notices it more and more over time.
“Sometimes the voices seem to be triggered by a trauma, sometimes by loneliness and sometimes by the child’s creativity.
“Many children are accepting and curious of their voices. They weren’t so much frightened or worried as an adult might be, but intrigued.”
Hallunications unique for everyone
The survey showed there was no gender or age pattern of the voices heard – voices are unique for everyone – and the internal utterances varied in frequency and characteristics from person to person.
Researchers found the voices stayed very much in their own time and did not age while the child grew up, and discovered on the whole children did not have much control over the voices, although many young people found them friendly and reassuring.
Child's voices less critical
Dr Parry explained: “Lots of children who we have heard from hear voices that are less classically critical than many adult voice hearers report.
“They provide a feeling of comfort and companionship and help protect against loneliness.
“Struggles to speak about their voices are not uncommon - some children we’ve been contacted by haven’t told anyone apart from us.
“Many young children who hear voices initially don’t realise that voice hearing is unusual or that there is a stigma but when they reach their teens they become aware other people don’t have the same experiences as them, and they become anxious of speaking up for fear of what others will think of them.”
Parental concerns about services
Some parents of children who hear voices contacted the researchers to share their family’s encounters.
“Many of the parents we have heard from have felt largely unsupported by local services,” said Dr Parry. “They describe feeling let down.”
”Parents described worrying about taking their child to children’s mental health services and the stigma or treatments that their child may then experience.
Beyond the anonymous online survey, researchers have started speaking directly to young people and their parents who agreed to be interviewed for a more in-depth discussion about their circumstances.
The results of the Young Voices study will be fed back to focus group of children who hear voices and shared with NHS practitioners in order to create authentic child-led guidelines, informed through lived experience and families.
Stop treating voices as a problem
Dr Parry said: “The big thing so far, and what the Hearing Voices movement have been saying for years, is that we as a society need to stop treating auditory hallucinations as a problem.
“Hearing voices is not in itself a problem for most because it’s really a coping strategy for young people.
“If we keep regarding auditory hallucinations as the problem, rather than a strategy, it is going to be difficult for young people engaging with services and potentially cause young people further delays and distress.
“By engaging more with auditory hallucinations as part of a bigger picture and childhood development, it will be much easier to get young people on board and find what’s helpful for them in terms of support.
“Hopefully our research is the beginning of a much more bottom-up process in designing interventions to help children who hear voices.”