If you think you’re hearing voices, you may be wondering what’s going on. You also might be a bit nervous. Are you actually hearing voices? And if so, why are you hearing them?
First, know that this experience is more common than you think. Researchers estimate that between 5% and 28% of the entire population hear voices. Relatively speaking, that’s a whole lot of other teens in the same boat as you.
In clinical terms, you are experiencing what are known as auditory hallucinations.
Teens report hearing different kinds of voices. Some say they hear “idle chatter,” such as neutral commentary on random topics or things going on in the day. Researcher Eleanor Longden, who discussed her experience with schizophrenia on a popular Ted Talk, remembers the first time she heard voices in her head. They started out as matter-of-fact comments on what she was doing every day in school:
“I was leaving a seminar when it started, humming to myself, fumbling with my bag just as I’d done a hundred times before, when suddenly I heard a voice calmly observe, “She is leaving the room.” I looked around, and there was no one there, but the clarity and decisiveness of the comment was unmistakable. Shaken, I left my books on the stairs and hurried home, and there it was again. “She is opening the door.” This was the beginning. The voice had arrived. And the voice persisted, days and then weeks of it, on and on, narrating everything I did in the third person. “She is going to the library.” “She is going to a lecture.” It was neutral, impassive and even, after a while, strangely companionate and reassuring.
However, the voice you may be hearing could be more judgmental. It might even be sinister. Some teens say that the voices talk badly about them. They highlight their insecurities, insult their character or appearance, or talk about how undesirable or unloved they are. These voices might start telling you to do bad things, like harm yourself or commit suicide. It is important for you to get help right away if this is happening to you.
Note: IF YOU ARE IN CRISIS OR AT IMMINENT RISK, CALL 911 OR GO TO THE EMERGENCY ROOM IMMEDIATELY.
Other times, these command hallucinations could be telling you to do random things to yourself or others. Eleanor Longden, for example, would often hear a voice telling her to take specific actions, like “pick out three strands of hair.” A voice once even commanded her to pour a cup of water on her teacher in front of the whole class.
Just like a single voice can turn from neutral to menacing, teens can have several different “characters” of voices. Research shows that most people who experience auditory hallucinations hear between 2-5 different voices.
Why am I hearing these voices?
Hallucinations can sometimes be a one-time experience. Lack of sleep, drugs, stress, and other issues can all cause episodes of hallucination.
Additionally, trauma and PTSD are usually connected to psychosis. If you’re hearing voices, research shows it’s likely you may have suffered from a trauma in your life. This might be a trauma you remember, if you were old enough. Or it could be one that you only have vague recollections of (if any at all).
Examples of trauma include:
- Being physically or sexually abused
- Suffering from emotional maltreatment or neglect
- Witnessing family violence or conflict
- Experiencing the loss of a parent
- Being involved in a natural disaster or car accident
Studies show that even being bullied can cause trauma. If you do remember the traumatic incident, thinking of it is usually very painful.
One research study, which Longden co-authored, drew together 100 voice-hearers spanning all ages. The common thread they found in almost all of them was that they had experienced at least one traumatic childhood event. For about 80% of the people, the voice took on a certain identity relating to this trauma, such as the abuser, a family member, or “a disowned aspect of self.”
As Longden explains it, the voices are “a survival strategy—a sane reaction to insane circumstances.”
Hallucinations and Psychosis
Other times, hallucinations are a sign of psychosis. However, before you start getting nervous that you’re undergoing a psychotic episode, remember this: If you’re still unsure whether the voices you’re hearing are auditory hallucinations, it probably means you’re just experiencing the prodromal symptoms of psychosis—not the actual full-blown disorder. (Or at least not yet.) That’s because teens who are in the throes of schizophrenia or psychosis cannot distinguish between the voices they’re hearing and reality itself. So if you have sufficient self-awareness at this point to second-guess yourself, that’s usually a positive sign.
According to the Child Mind Institute, only about 25-30% of people who start hearing voices are eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia or another psychotic disorder. The other 70% of teens do not. That means that these symptoms could actually indicate depression, anxiety or even substance use or trauma. To know whether your hallucinations are connected to a mental health issue, seek out a professional right away. In case the hallucinations are due to schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or another mental health issue, early intervention is crucial.