This section of our website is aimed at people considering having a conversation about voices with someone in their life, outside the context of mental health services. Here we explore personal reflections on talking about voices, some research around disclosure and stigma, and provide practical examples and suggestions for voice-hearers and those who support them.
Listen to the audio recordings below to hear people reflect on their experiences of telling someone that they hear voices. The stories include both positive and negative experiences, and range from conversations with family members and friends through to discussions with employers and education providers.
These personal testimonies were collected by Elisabeth Svanholmer (voice-hearer and mental health trainer) and voiced by actors to protect individual identities. Thank you to the people who contributed for sharing their experiences so generously on this website.
OPENING UP CONVERSATIONS
While sometimes it just ‘pops’ out, there can be lots of different things to think about when you’re deciding whether or not to tell someone you hear voices.
Sometimes disclosure can carry risks, or lead to negative consequences. Many voice-hearers have reported conversations that leave them feeling unheard, disbelieved or rejected.
I found it mainly unhelpful to talk to family and friends about my experiences. Some try to understand, but are puzzled. And some just don’t want to know. People find it easier to deal with physical illness – something they can see in front of them. Many seem frightened or threatened by ‘mental illness’ – or whatever other term you use to describe hearing voices.
On the other hand, talking about voices can also be a positive experience. It can be a means of finding emotional support or connection, and help people to explore and understand their voices better. Talking can also help to identify patterns or triggers, express difficult feelings, or figure out ways of coping with challenging voices in different situations.
Talking with others who also experience voices has been immensely helpful. It’s reinforced the idea that I’m not alone and that I am not crazy!
I’ve never spoken to family or friends, but my partner who realised what was going on helped me find meaning in the voices and helped me to cope when they were too difficult – i.e. by distracting me or offering up a listening ear to them so that I can voice them to someone else.
In the workplace, at school or University, disclosure can enable reasonable adjustments to be made, such as flexible work arrangements, a change in duties or more understanding from lecturers and teachers. Some people find that telling their employers, colleagues and educators about their voices is actually less stressful than concealing their experiences: it can mean that they can be ‘honest’ about what is happening and help explain behaviour linked to voices that might otherwise be misinterpreted.
Nevertheless, it can be hard to know how to start and feel comfortable having a conversation about hearing voices with family, friends, and other people in your life. In what follows, we’ve drawn together some ideas and suggestions around how to talk about voices for voice-hearers and their supporters. These suggestions come from research carried out by Elisabeth Svanholmer and Rufus May, who talked to voice-hearers, their friends and families about what worked and didn’t work for them.
In the section on ‘Why is it difficult to talk about voices?’, we consider some of the worries people have around disclosure, such as stigma and fear of a negative reaction from others. But you don’t have to read this part first – you can go straight to the practical tips for voice-hearers and their supporters if that seems more relevant, or simply explore the sections in whatever order seems right for you.
Coping with voices: Being with people
Hearing voices can come in many forms – some voices are friendly, helpful, insightful and inspiring whilst others are scary, critical or commanding. This animation, produced in collaboration with the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Oxford and the McPin Hearing Voices Lived Experience Advisory Panel, shares the stories of people who hear one type of voices: those which threaten them or criticise them. Its aim is to inspire more conversations about voices, because nobody should be hearing nasty voices alone.
For more information, read the research paper that informed the animation.