Two thirds of people who hear voices aren't disturbed by them, however they can have an enormous impact on the way a young person sees themselves and their world.
Children under the age of 13 are more likely to hear voices than any other age group. Voice Collective, which runs a global online forum for young voice hearers, was set up in response to an increasing demand for non-clinical and peer support approaches from young voice hearers and their families.
Almost a decade on from their launch, we caught up with Voice Collective's Eve Mundy - who will speak at MHT Wales in May - to get the latest in understanding of voice hearing, along with insights into their sensitive and pioneering support services.
Mental Health Today: Is hearing voices a sign of trauma?
Eve Mundy: There are many different reasons why young people hear voices, see visions or have other sensory experiences, and there are lots of different theories out there - ranging from the biochemical to the spiritual.
Some of the young people we support at Voice Collective tell us that their voices started after experiencing a trauma/s, such as losing a loved one, being abused or bullied, or witnessing a crime. Some young people talk to us about the impact of factors such as growing up in poverty, not having a safe place to live, feeling like an outsider in their community, or being discriminated against due to their ethnicity, sexuality, gender or socioeconomic background. And some young people tell us that they were born voice-hearers, or that hearing voices is a special gift or ability, or that it’s a religious or spiritual experience.
It’s important to remember that whilst there are lots of theories within psychiatry and psychology about why voices happen, there isn’t any consensus. The experience of hearing voices or seeing visions is as unique as the young people we support, and no two stories will ever be the same.
Mental Health Today: Is hearing voices something that needs to be treated or something that just needs to be understood better?
Eve Mundy: There is a lot of misunderstanding, misinformation and fear surrounding the voice hearing experience. For instance, most people aren’t aware that just over 1 in 10 of us hear voices on a regular basis, or that voice hearing in children and adolescents is about as common as having asthma or dyslexia.
Hearing voices isn’t a mental illness, or an experience that automatically requires treatment. Two thirds of people who hear voices aren’t distressed by them, and we see lots of young people who find their voices helpful in some way (for instance by comforting them when they’re feeling sad or afraid).
That being said, some young people experience voices or visions that are distressing and overwhelming, and they can find it incredibly difficult to manage these experiences and continue to do the things that they love. Distressing voices can have an enormous impact on the way a young person sees themselves and their world, and difficulty coping with these voices might have an impact on relationships, education and life goals.
There are different forms of support available to young people if they’re struggling with distressing voices or visions, such as CAMHS, school counselling services, national helplines such as Childline, as well as the support services we offer at Voice Collective.
We run a dedicated UK-wide email support service for under 19s who hear voices, see visions or have other sensory experiences (on firstname.lastname@example.org), a 1:1 support service for young people and families in London, and we set up peer support groups throughout Greater London, the South and other parts of the UK within mental health services and community organisations.
We’ve recently launched the UK’s first online forum exclusively for voice hearers under 25, their families and supporters (at http://forum.voicecollective.co.uk). The forum is a safe, confidential space to connect, share experiences and receive peer support.
Mental Health Today: There are different views on whether voices and images are real or represent something – what is the latest thinking on this?
Eve Mundy: Voices and visions are real experiences – they aren’t imaginary, nor are they the same thing as thoughts, daydreams or night terrors.
Sometimes voices speak in literal truths, and sometimes they speak in metaphors or ‘emotional truths’. For instance, a voice telling a young person travelling on a bus that the bus is about to explode might not be telling the literal truth, but might instead be speaking an emotional truth - i.e. that the young person has a fear of public transport, or is feeling unsafe or anxious that day. Even seemingly negative voices could be trying to protect a young person, or encourage them to take care of themselves. Even a voice commanding a young person to hurt themselves or someone else could be used positively, and turn out to be good for their health and wellbeing.
Mental Health Today: Children under the age of 13 are more likely to hear voices than any other age group – why is this?
Eve Mundy: We don’t know! Again, there isn’t any consensus on this.
Mental Health Today: What is Voice Collective – how is it unique and how does it help people?
Eve Mundy: Voice Collective was the first service of its kind in the world, and we continue to lead on the development of non-clinical, peer support approaches to voice hearing in children and adolescents today.
We provide specialist support to children and young people from the age of 6 to 25 who hear voices, see visions or have other sensory experiences, as well as their parents/carers, families and supporters, at Mind in Camden in north London.
We run a dedicated email support service for under 19s throughout the UK, and an online forum open to any young person under 25 across the world. We also offer 1:1 support to young people and families at our offices, and set up peer support groups for young people to connect, share experiences and receive support across the UK. Some of our workers have lived experience of voice hearing and recovery, and utilise this in support sessions, groups and trainings.
As we’re a capacity-building service, we focus much of our efforts on training community and in-patient CAMHS and EIP services, as well as youth organisations, schools and colleges. We also provide specialist support to young refugees and asylum seekers, youth offending teams and Young Offender Institutions.
Mental Health Today: Where did Voice Collective come from – why was it considered the best approach for supporting young people?
Eve Mundy: Mind in Camden are a centre of expertise on peer support, co-production and non-clinical approaches to understanding and supporting voice hearers. We launched the London Hearing Voices Network back in 2005, training people to set up and facilitate peer support groups for adult voice hearers. This network includes 40 voices, visions and beliefs groups across Greater London, and is still going strong.
Over time, we noticed an increasing demand for non-clinical and peer support approaches from young voice hearers and their families. We applied to charitable trusts for funding for a service catering specifically to their needs, and after a successful pilot in 2009 we've received funding every year to grow and enhance the service.
Voice Collective is a co-produced service to ensure that it best meets the needs of the young people and families we support. We're currently funded by BBC Children in Need and the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation until March 2020, when we will be applying for the next 3-year cycle of funding.
Mental Health Today: Do young people have different support needs than adults?
Eve Mundy: Young people tell us that they find it especially difficult to feel heard, believed and validated. Sadly, some children and young people tell us that they received negative responses from the people around them when they tried to open up – told they were making it up, attention seeking, or crazy – so much of the work that we do is focused on normalising these experiences, supporting young people and families to talk openly about them, and empowering them to explore diverse ways of coping with and managing them if they’re distressing.
Mental Health Today: How do you ensure it is safe?
Eve Mundy: Safety is number one in all of the work that we do. Young people lead on our 1:1 sessions and groups, and know that there’s never any pressure or expectation to share. We always ask young people what safety means to them, and meet them where they’re at that day, plus we explain our confidentiality policy to everyone accessing our service, so that they understand the limits of confidentiality, and when we might need to involve someone else in their support.
Our online forum is a safe, confidential space that can be accessed anonymously. We’ve created separate, age-appropriate areas, so that young people can only see what other young people have written, young adults can only see what other young adults have written, and the same for parents/carers and other supporters. The forum is moderated by project staff 365 days per year, to ensure that conversations feel safe for everyone involved, and we’re always on hand if any safeguarding issues were to arise.
Eve Mundy will present and answer questions on the theme 'Changing Our Relationships With Voices' at Mental Health Today Wales in May. Tickets are available here.
Voice Collective's online forum is funded by Hearing the Voice at Durham University.