Hearing voices is a relatively common – and taboo – phenomenon in children and can trigger educational difficulties, but this could change with the publication of a groundbreaking study in Holland.
By David Batty, The Guardian, Friday 16 November, 2001
Harry squinted at his friends’ darkened faces.
“Do you think I should have told them about that voice I heard?”
“No,” said Ron, without hesitation. “Hearing voices no one else can hear isn’t a good sign, even in the wizarding world”.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
In the second of JK Rowling’s bestselling Harry Potter series, the young wizard is tormented by a threatening voice that only he can hear: Come… come to me… let me rip you… let me tear you… let me kill you…
Upon confessing this to his best friends, Ron and Hermione, Harry is warned not to tell anyone else as it might inflame suspicion that he is responsible for the recent spate of attacks on their fellow pupils.
The message to the reader is clear: even at the Hogwarts school of magic – with its talking paintings and nearly decapitated ghosts – hearing voices is weird and frightening.
Such attitudes are less surprising in the real world. The only British survey of voice hearing in children in 1973 found 2% had heard voices before adulthood. However, voices are rarely mentioned other than in crime reports where they have urged someone to kill. For example, Horrett Campbell, who attacked nursery nurse Lisa Potts, said he heard voices and was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.
It is hardly surprising that no family has been prepared to discuss their experience – until now.
The reason for this newfound openness is the conclusion of a groundbreaking four-year study of 80 children aged between eight and 18 by researchers at Maastricht University in Holland, which may well change both public and professional attitudes about voices.
Although 40 of the children were receiving mental health care when the research began, this number more than halved to 18 after four years – challenging the traditional view that voices are a sign of long-term illness.
The study was led by one of Europe’s most eminent psychiatrists, Professor Marius Romme, researcher Sandra Escher and psychologist Alex Buiks, who first proposed that voices should be treated as real experiences rather than delusions.
After interviewing hundreds of adult voice hearers in the 1990s – many of whom had no mental health diagnosis – Romme and Escher concluded that many people could learn to control disturbing voices if they talked back to them.
They decided to examine voice hearing in children as many patients revealed that their voices had first emerged in childhood. The aim was to see whether early therapeutic intervention could prevent people from being labelled with a diagnosis and condemned to spending years in the psychiatric system.
According to Ms Escher, it is normal for children to have imaginary friends but not if it continues much beyond the age of eight.
As with adult voice hearers, 21% of the children in the study first heard voices after suffering some sort of trauma, such as sexual abuse, bereavement or illness; 37% began to hear voices after family problems, such as divorce; and 25% due to educational difficulties such as changing schools and bullying.
Some voices interfered with their school work, giving them the wrong answers during exams, says Ms Escher. Some made emotive comments about their friends or family, while others made so much noise that they simply couldn’t concentrate. The most disturbing voices upset children by telling them they were going to die or that family members would be harmed if they did not obey.
While the research team found that most of the voices were initially scary and disruptive, some proved beneficent and the experience was almost always temporary.
By the end of the study, 60% of the children no longer heard voices – and more have stopped hearing them since – and those who still did heard them far less often and were much less frightened by them. The participants also reported far fewer problems at home and school.
We found children can learn to cope with their voices as long as they are not made to fear them, says Ms Escher. Their attitude towards the voices, and that of their parents and their therapist or medical staff, is key.
One striking example the researchers came across was the case of a 16-year-old boy who began hearing voices after joining a satanic cult and drinking excessively. He was admitted to a psychiatric hospital but made no progress and attempted suicide despite being given medication and psychotherapy.
His father contacted Romme and Escher after hearing of their research. They asked the boy to describe his voices in detail and he divided them into two groups: psychotic/evil and paranormal/good.
After his parents and his psychotherapist accepted this analysis, his condition improved greatly. By the second year of the study, his psychotic voices had disappeared and he had returned to school. He still heard a “paranormal” voice but viewed it positively, claiming it provided moral guidance and helped keep evil at bay.
As in their research with adults, Romme and Escher found that the children could rationalise their experience by talking back to their voices. They can either tell them to go away or encourage any positive voices they hear, which can help them to control the more disturbing ones, says Ms Escher. But the key is to help them understand what first triggered the voices.
To the researchers’ surprise, educational problems proved as significant a trigger as trauma. One 11-year-old boy said he heard male and female voices that quarrelled when he was stressed at school, says Ms Escher. The male voice was critical and turned numbers around during maths lessons, so he made mistakes. But the female one was supportive.
Once he was helped to tackle the voices and became less aggressive, the boy’s teachers then realised he was really struggling with his studies. Tests revealed he only had an IQ of 85 – far too low to cope with his lessons, says Ms Escher. After being transferred to a specialist school, he became much happier and the voices have not returned.
However, most of the children in the study are typical teenagers. Wendy, from Amsterdam, is a huge fan of boyband A1. Sitting in the living room of her canal front flat it is hard to imagine how anyone might regard her as mentally ill. But the voices she heard were very controlling and disturbing.
At first there was one evil voice – neither male nor female, the 16-year-old recalls. It ordered me to do things or said I couldn’t do them. If there was a quiz on TV it told me I’d have to get at least 10 right or it would scare me with skeletons. I was afraid to be in my room at night when the voice was strongest.
Wendy was referred to a psychologist who told her to visualise a halo of light around her head to keep the voices at bay. She also received medication to reduce her anxiety and help her sleep.
The psychologist helped her to realise that the voices had appeared after a series of upsetting events: her mother had a heart attack, her father lost his job, her grandmother died and three girls started bullying her at school.
Ms Escher believes that hearing voices is a variation of the norm, like being left-handed, rather than an abnormality. Some people regard hearing voices as a curse but others see it as a gift, something that makes them special.
One girl, Janneke from Heerhugowaard in northern Holland, used to hear a female voice called Vie which not only helped control the male voices that troubled her but also acted as a life coach. She even helped me practice synchronised speed swimming, encouraged me to do my homework and to go out and make more friends, says the 18-year-old.
Julie Downs, volunteer coordinator at the UK Hearing Voices Network, says the findings would greatly reassure parents. This study shows the prognosis for children is good and they can function normally even if they continue to hear voices, she says.
We’ve had more than 400 calls from parents and professionals in the past four years – most concerned as to whether their children will be labelled as mentally ill.
The mental health charity Mind says the study shows that with the right therapeutic approach, drugs to suppress voices are not the only answer. The successful techniques identified by this research need to be built into practice so people who hear voices have the widest treatment options and the chance to benefit from this breakthrough,says policy officer Alison Cobb.
Children’s voices disappear, just as they do for adults, when underlying problems such as grief or bullying are resolved, says Ms Escher. It is clear that gaining awareness of the link between such problems and voice hearing can change attitudes towards the symptoms and diminish their damaging effects. Voices might be a problem but not every problem is an illness.
Click here for the original article (The Guardian website)