Throughout history, every culture has had a small group of people who have experienced things that no one else was aware of. Sometimes they heard a ringing in their ears, a buzzing or other annoying sound (ala tinnitus). Sometimes they saw visions of ghosts, angels or animals. Most commonly, people have heard voices in their heads. Sometimes the voice was their own, or that of a family member or friend. Other times it belonged to someone they’d never heard before. Generation after generation, these have all been common experiences throughout human history. For the purposes of this blog post, I will refer to all of the above experiences and more under the general term “hearing voices”.
In today’s day an age, many of the people who hear voices are often described as having schizophrenia. Schizophrenia is a mental illness whose symptoms commonly involve seeing or hearing things that other people can’t perceive. It’s a psychotic disorder which, let me make it clear, does not mean having multiple personalities or being prone to violence. Psychosis refers to an altered perception of reality. Indeed, some of the best and brightest minds of human history have produced masterpieces by virtue of their unique perspective, including nobel prize winners, musicians and writers. But I digress. As I have said previously, the word schizophrenia is just a label, and it may or may not be useful to an individual as a way of understanding themselves and their experiences.
More importantly, hearing voices is not a sign that you’re going mad. It’s not even necessarily a sign of mental illness. It is an experience that has been often celebrated throughout history – one need only look at prophets, shamans, telepaths, psychics, mediums and anybody who has claimed to see God or angels or spirits. And it’s a surprisingly common experience. It’s difficult to get exact numbers due to under-reporting, but recent research indicates that between 4-10% of the population hears voices at some point in their life. That makes it even more common than left-handedness.
There are many different reasons why we hear voices. It’s often associated with trauma, but some of the other causes include:
This is not an exhaustive list. But it goes to show that there are a range of reasons why people might hear voices. It’s also worth noting that voices are just one symptom in a host of very complex life circumstances, often featuring trauma, guilt and shame. Given this, it becomes very understandable that people experience some pretty intense emotion and they deal with it in different ways.
And each voice hearer has a completely unique experience. As I mentioned earlier, the voices might be just a single person they know, or a whole group of people they don’t know. They might hear their guardian angel. They might hear the ghost of their mother. They might overhear telepaths communicating with one another. They might hear demons. They might hear a radio chattering incessantly in the background. They might just hear one jerk telling them over and over how stupid they are (and other worse things besides). They might hear people giving them advice or being kind to them (or even giving them the answers to exams, as in Eleanor Longden’s video below). They might have a huge group of people arguing with each other. For some people, the voices are a one off experience for a second or two. For other people, they are a life-long experience. In some cases, the voices are 24/7 and can wake people up at night. In most cases, they come and go. Like everyone, people who hear voices have good days and bad days: days when their voices are loud, or mean, or relentless, and days when they are quiet, supportive or silent.
So. What happens if you (or someone you know) does hear voices in some form or another? Well, breathe a sigh of relief because now you know it’s a normal experience, that you’re not alone, and that you’re not crazy. However, not everyone is aware of this. Unfortunately the stigma of being a voice hearer is often worse than hearing the voices themselves. If you do decide to tell someone close to you about what you’re going through, my best advice would be making yourself as informed as possible about what you’re going through beforehand. Saying to a friend “I hear a voice in my head telling me not to leave the house” is a pretty intimidating conversation for someone who’s not expecting it, so you might want to break it to them gently. It would probably help to explain what your experience is, how common it is, what you think is causing it, what services exist and what you plan to do about it. Having an informed conversation like that takes the responsibility off the other person to do something because they’re worried for you or scared for themselves, and hopefully they’ll become your support and ally.
Depending on your individual experience, it might be that you would benefit from professional mental health services. Medication has proved very useful to many voices hearers, though I will say not everyone agrees with me. I’ve met many people who have said the side effects and emotional dampening of their meds has prevented them from enjoying life with all its ups and downs. This is a very individual issue because there are many different types of medications, some of which might be helpful and some of which might not be. In many cases, medication isn’t needed at all – as long as you are able to have a good relationship with your voices and continue to live the sort of life you enjoy, you might not even bother with the mental illness label. The medical model of diagnosis and treatment has its limitations, and mental health services (particularly those working with a recovery model) offer a very different way of working with voices.
For more information, check out Tune In Not Out’s topic of Psychosis. ReachOut also has quite an extensive page of information. Other websites that are specific to voice hearers include the very practical http://hearingvoiceswa.org.au (with quite an extensive section on what you can do if you are a voice hearer. Intervoice also has a very detailed website, with an equally impressive practical guide for voice hearers. And for anyone wanting to talk to other people having similar experiences, they might like to check out this very active forum and read other people’s stories or perhaps even share their own.
For help offline, there are a large number of mental health organisations that work from a base of non-judgement, understanding and support – a quick internet search into “mental health services in [your area]” will probably turn up helpful results. Being connected to an organisation for help, advice, counselling, treatment and support can be invaluable. And what’s more, meeting people who can understand your experiences without judging or discriminating against you can be life-changing. Let me say again: you are not alone.
Finally I really recommend checking out this amazing TED talk by Eleanor Longden, who eloquently describes her experience of first hearing a voice, and the subsequent challenges she’s faced on her recovery journey. It’s a really inspiring video, and she does a much better job than I do of breaking down this issue and talking about it. Please give it a watch!
That’s all from me. Stay safe everyone!
Also check the related topics:Psychosis and other mental illnesses