What is it?
If someone hears a voice when no-one is with them, or which other people can’t hear, we sometimes call this ‘hearing voices’. People can have other, similar sensory experiences like seeing things that others can’t see. Everyone’s experience is different, for example you might:
- Hear simple sounds or your name being called out
- Hear a voice or voices inside your head
- Hear a voice or voices through your ears, like other sounds
- Hear a voice that tells you what to do
- Hear a nasty or threatening voice
- Hear an encouraging or friendly voice
- Hear a voice that feels like your own thoughts
- Hear a voice which feels like it comes from a completely different person, who you may or may not recognise
Hearing voices is common and can have lots of different causes. Hearing voices does not necessarily mean that you have a mental health problem, although it can be related to a mental health problem for some people.
When does it happen?
Hearing voices can happen at any time in a person’s life. It can be a one-off, or short-lived experience or it can sometimes last for a long time. It can happen continuously or quite rarely, and this can change for a person over time.
A common cause of voice hearing is dissociation. This is when some part of us, like a thought or a memory, gets shut off from the rest of us due to unmanageable emotions. Hearing voices can therefore sometimes start because of stress or if there is a lot going on in your life, especially if you have experienced trauma such as bullying or abuse.
They can also happen as a result of taking drugs, if you are physically unwell, or if you are not able to sleep. They commonly happen for people when they are falling asleep or just waking up and this can be normal. Hearing voices can also be related to mental health problems such as psychosis and personality disorder.
What does it look like when someone is hearing voices?
If hearing voices is causing problems, you may notice the following:
- The person might appear distracted.
- They might talk back to the voices, either in their own head or out loud.
- They might understand that others cannot hear the voices, or this might confuse and worry them.
- They might have lots of different explanations or theories about the voices.
- They might be afraid, and they might want to spend less time with others.
- Sometimes there might be big changes in behaviour and ability to do their usual activities.
What can I do?
If someone is hearing voices, and this is causing distress or problems with relationships, daily activities, school or work, then they may need support, including from professionals.
Who can help?
If you go to your GP they can help you to think about what might be causing the voices. Sometimes a GP might advise that you are referred to CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service) or EIS (Early Intervention Service). This will give you the chance to speak to a specialist team who will be able to help you.
Some people worry that if they tell someone, they will be sent to hospital. In reality, speaking out early tends to mean that things get better more quickly and hospital isn’t needed.
How can hearing voices be treated?
Hearing voices might not need treatment, however if it is causing problems then there are a few things that can help, depending on the cause.
- Improving sleep
- Support with reducing or stopping drugs and alcohol
- Support with stress and difficult experiences – support might be from family, friends, school or professionals
- Links for relevant charities
- Talking therapies – usually CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy)
- These can help with the distress caused by symptoms (or their underlying cause) and to get back to doing what matters to you.
- You will be offered one to one therapy sessions, in a setting which suits you.
- The therapist will work with you to identify a personal goal and how that might be best achieved.
- Treatment for related mental health problems, such as psychosis or personality disorder
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Page last reviewed: 14 March, 2023