If you support someone who hears voices, you might find the suggestions below useful when it comes to talking about their experiences:
1. Listening and believing
While hearing voices is an unshared experience, it’s still a real experience. That doesn’t mean that the voice is being truthful, or that it should be acted on – it’s about recognizing that the person really is hearing something. Listening to, and believing in, the reality of their voices can be extremely validating.
I have found that people reinforcing the voices aren’t there only seems to make the intensity of the voices rapidly increase.
It’s important to me that my friends and family recognize that the voices I hear and visions I see are my reality – I’m not making them up; they’re not figments of my imagination … But believing me doesn’t mean that you have to believe that the voices are telling the truth.
I find it hard to talk when people take a hugely different view of my experience to the one I take. A bit of gentle questioning is fine, but it’s unhelpful if people don’t believe my experience or deny my interpretation.
2. Being mindful of language
There are many different theories that seek to explain why it is that people hear voices, and explanatory frameworks include biological, psychological, cultural, religious or spiritual perspectives. Some voice-hearers view their voices as symptoms of an illness, while others see them as communications from spirits, Gods, demons, aliens or other entities.
It’s important to be mindful of the words and phrases used in conversations about hearing voices. Some words and phrases may not speak to the reality of what a voice-hearer is experiencing. Taking extra care to mirror the language they use can help them to feel heard and suppored.
If you’re ever in doubt about how someone understands their experiences, or how they’d like you both to discuss them, it’s best to ask.
It helps if people have an open mind and don’t just view it as me being ‘ill’ – it’s my life and has been for 12 years.
I found it frustrating that my old CPN called my voices ‘intrusive thoughts’ – because they seemed to think if I thought this the voices would be easier to ignore. But it felt dismissive of what I was going through.
3. Being curious
Many voice-hearers find it helpful when people show an interest in getting to know more about their experiences, and the impact of these. Asking gentle, open-ended questions about what it is like and how it feels to hear voices, how voices affect daily life, and how you might provide support can reassure them that you’re open to finding out more.
Always ask if it’s OK to ask something, and let people know that’s it’s OK for them not to answer. Leave the door open for future conversations and, if talking about the voices is difficult, let them know if you’re open to trying different ways. Some people find it easier to talk when they’re walking. Others prefer having a code name for the voices, so they don’t need to go into detail – for example, they might say ‘the weather’s a bit stormy in here’ to let you know that they’re struggling.
I like it if people take time to get to know me and my voices. I also like it if people ask me about my feelings, rather than what the voices are saying right now, as it makes it hard to focus on anything if I’m trying to interpret. I don’t like it when people tell me what it means, but asking if I’ve considered a viewpoint can be helpful. Any question is OK if people are genuinely interested and not rude.
…what I find most helpful, when I’m distressed in particular, is when friends or family ask: ‘Would you like to talk about what is going on right now?’ It makes the conversation not about having to frame your whole experience, just more them expressing a desire to be a part of the life I have that they can’t see and that is really valuable to me.
Equally, it’s important to remember to respect confidentiality when someone chooses to share their experiences. They have chosen to talk with you, and unless you’re worried about their safety or the safety of others, it’s not OK to tell other people without their permission.
4. Just 'being there'
When someone confides in you that they’re hearing voices, it can be hard not to feel that you need to help find a way to fix things, particularly if that person seems to be suffering. But rather than attempt to challenge the voices, make them go away, or resolve someone’s emotional distress, sometimes it is more helpful just to be there for someone, and listen to them.
To have someone just be beside me and not be scared about saying the wrong thing is nice.
There are, of course, plenty of practical things family, friends and other supporters can do to help someone who is struggling to cope with their voices when the time is right. You can find out more about these in our sections on For friends and family and Hearing voices at work or while studying.
5. Know that things can get better
Find out more
How to help someone when they’re hearing voices (2018). Stumbling Mind.
‘14 steps to help me when I am hearing voices’ (2017). The Mighty.
A handy how-to guide from The Samaritans. This article covers how to start a conversation when you’re worried about someone, how to be a good listener, and how to look after yourself. It relates to conversations about mental health and suicide, but can also be applied to hearing voices.