I’ve worked with a number of people that hear voices. These are voices (or some see visions or have other experiences) that others do no have. The voices are not necessarily there all the time but they are often more noticeable and disturbing when people are stressed or when they are trying to get to sleep.
They can be alarming and deeply disturbing, particularly when they are nasty or telling you to do dangerous things. They can have clear meanings or sometimes the voices just seem to be screaming a warning or abuse. This understandably makes a lot of people concerned about their mental health but it may surprise you to know that, from a survey of young people, 8% or one in twelve hear voices that others do not. This survey by the Hearing Voices Network also tells us that 70-90% of people who hear voices do so after traumatic events.
This topic has come into focus for me when a colleague suggested that I watch Eleanor Longden’s the voices in my head talk on TED Talks:
For people experiencing or caring for people hearing voices and not knowing what to do Eleanor’s remarkable and positive story. It goes from a shattered person diagnosed with schizophrenia and heavily medicated to someone healed and whole.
Her voices started when she went to university. Initially they were companion like and making observations like ‘she’s going off to the library’. As she talked to others about them she became conditioned to the view that normal people don’t hear voices. This seemed to ramp up the hostility of the voices that led to a dramatic deterioration the next two years.
Treatment and support
In terms of support and treatment I completely agree with Dr Pat Bracken, a specialist psychiatrist in this area from Ireland, who’s view is that: “As professionals we need to help people who are depressed or dominated by voices to find a path out of that state. That could be through medication, therapy, religion or creativity. It is completely wrong to try to use one template for everyone.”
Eleanor eventually learnt that the voices were her way of processing emotions that she was not able to express in any other way. She learnt to listen to them and understand what they were saying to her and then to separate the words from their meaning, e.g. when she is working and a voice is barking at her that she is going to fail her response is now ‘I do need a break; thanks for reminding me’.
She sums it up beautifully by saying that voices are a sane reaction to insane circumstances.
Eleanor ends her TED Talk by saying that a doctor helped her start her process of healing by asking ‘don’t tell me what other people have told you about yourself, tell me about you.’ That is great advice.
Good online guide for parents, family and carers: