Whispers, Echoes, Friends and Fears: Forms and Functions of Voice Hearing in Adolescence

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Background Despite the high prevalence of voice-hearing in childhood, research with adolescents aged under 16 years is scarce. Theoretical connections between clinical and developmental conceptualisations of voice-hearing are limited, resulting in missed opportunities to explore unusual sensory experiences with young people.

Methods Demographic, contextual and qualitative data were collected through a web-based survey with 68 adolescents (M=14.91; SD=2.77) from Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, Spain, the United Kingdom, and United States of America. A Foucauldian-informed narrative analysis captured phenomenologically meaningful individual accounts and systemically informed narratives. Analytic layers attended specifically to the form and function of voices, including relational, protective, distressing and nuanced experiences, offering new insights into individual, systemic and cultural interpretative narratives surrounding voice hearing to inform research, policy and tailored support.

Results The average self-reported age of onset of voices was 9 years, 5 months. Reciprocal relationships with pleasant voices were evidenced through the narratives and characterization of voices, while distressing voices were described without reciprocity and the voices held greater power over the young person. Positive aspects of negative voices were discussed and are illustrated with a continuum matrix reflecting interpretation and related affect.

Conclusions Voice hearing is a heterogeneous and often complex relational experience for young people, with structural inequalities, relational traumas and social isolation attributed causes of voice hearing. Developing personal meaning making mitigated voice-related distress through contextualising the origin of the voices in past experiences, without attribution to mental illness. Recommendations are proposed for assessment, formulation and relational interventions that recognise the potential impact of the voice-child-other relationship upon psychosocial functioning and wellbeing.
Original languageEnglish
JournalChild and Adolescent Mental Health
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 5 Jun 2020


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