Being friends with someone who hears voices is a different experience from person to person. Some people may not want to talk about their voices, whereas others may look for specific support around them. Close friends may find themselves advocating for their friend, or sometimes being one of only a few people entrusted with knowledge about the voices. Being able to offer support and warmth, but also normalcy, without perhaps some of the emotional weight which family members can carry, can be hugely important.
An animation from Voice Collective, in which young people talk about what it is like to hear voices, and helpful and unhelpful things friends can say
My closest friend hears voices. It’s not actually something we talk about that much. When we have talked about her voices, it’s usually because they’re being particularly destructive or loud, and she’s finding it hard to cope. Once, I challenged what the voice was saying, which wasn’t very helpful! Now, I tend to focus more on how she is feeling, and what I can do that would feel helpful. Sometimes it’s distraction, sometimes it’s talking about the voices or how she feels about them. When it’s really bad, I don’t feel there’s much I can do other than sit with her. I don’t know how helpful that is, which I can find hard in itself.
One of the challenges at the beginning of the friendship was finding the balance between being interested in her voices, because it’s a part of her life, and not being intrusive. For me, someone’s voices feels very private. I’m really wary of asking probing questions, and she’s probably wary of upsetting me by talking to me about the really bad voices. So it can be hard to talk about. The most important thing for me is that I’m her friend, and whilst voices are part of her life they don’t define her.
We take it for granted that we share our experience of reality. If you can hear it then so can I. When someone hears voices that experience is challenged. It can make us feel disconnected from the voice hearer, and this is harder if its someone we usually feel close to. Some immediate reactions might be ‘ they’re mad,’ ; ‘ what are the voices telling them ( to hurt me? Or themselves?)’ ; ‘ what’s going on in their head?’ ; ‘ This isn’t the person I know and love’. We usually fear the things we don’t understand. And in many cultures, hearing voices has been associated with madness and therefore with both fear and stigma.
Jonny Benjamin (2018). How the stranger who saved my life became my friend – and fellow mental health campaigner. The Telegraph.
Jonny Benjamin and Neil Laybourn (2017) talk about the beginning of their friendship in Stranger on a Bridge. Head Talks.