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Dublin: 3 °C Sunday 23 November, 2014

Reduce the stigma to help children who hear voices

“I am successful, I work full time and live a life that I love – but it wasn’t always this way.”

“I HAVE CO-EXISTED with my voices for as many years as my memory can recall,” says Eoin, a 19-year-old teenager who hears voices and has learned to live with the trait.

He is not on his own.

Research has shown that hearing voices is a relatively common experience among children and young people. Although it is often perceived to be a sign of severe mental illness, this is not always the case.

It affects about 20 per cent of 11 to 13 year olds. That percentage is reduced to 7 per cent in older teens.

Eoin explains that in his situation it started off mainly as a mixture of “positive, but occasionally bothersome, experiences”.

“I was comfortable with our coexistence for many years, until when I was 14, when the voices really turned up the heat and the volume. I gradually descended into a set of beliefs surrounding myself, as my voices became increasingly angry and violent. One of them vanished, and in the vacuum the other began speaking twice as much.”

The experience will be discussed tonight at a public lecture in UCC with Rachel Waddingham, a voice hearer and an expert on the issue.

She will share her own experience and look at the ways she works with younger people at her project, Voice Collective.

The London-based initiative is a peer-support group for children and young people who hear voices.

Eoin says being able to get in touch with the group helped him.

“I hopped in and out of hospital like it was going out of fashion, and received a diagnosis which I didn’t really agree with,” he explains. “I’ve began to develop a working relationship with my voice, and tried to understand her and what drives her.

I don’t think ‘recovery’ and ‘not hearing voices’ are the same thing- if anything, I get more upset when I have a period of ‘silence’.

“My voices have been a very formative experience in my life, and with Voice Collective’s help, I’m discovering more about my self and my experiences than being labelled or medicated ever could.”

Waddingham says the experiences of hearing voices can be transient and pleasant. They can sometimes give support or encouragement during times of stress.

For others, though, the voices can be overwhelming, frightening and leave children feeling isolated.

“It can be such a stigmatising experience that many hide it. Voice-hearing in childhood is still a taboo in our society. If we, as adults, are unable to talk about it, how can we expect young people to open up when they need help?’

The Voice Collective offers non-medical support to those struggling to cop with the voices they hear and it is hoped that a similar service can be established in Ireland.

Waddington set it up in response to her own experiences as a young person.

“I started to see visions when I was at primary school, and still hear voices to this day,” she says.

I am successful, I work full time and live a life that I love – but it wasn’t always this way.

“In my early 20s I spent a lot of time in hospital, really struggling to cope. Rather than talk about my issues, I kept them secret for far too long. I am constantly amazed at how courageous and open the young people we meet at Voice Collective are – but I know there are many more young people who are still struggling to find a way of opening up.

“I hope this event is the start of an initiative that makes a real difference to the young people of Cork.”

Ashley, a 13 year old who hears voices, says the project has been “amazing”.

“They really understand me and how I feel, because they have heard voices too. I know they believe me too, which is important. They help me to challenge the voices and feel safer by giving me coping strategies. I go to a weekly group where I have met other young people who are experiencing similar, which has helped me to realise I am not alone.”

The lecture will be held in Bool 4 Lecture Theatre in UCC from 6.30pm to 8pm. 

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