On Sunday 17 August I attended a presentation called ‘You are not alone’ at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Nicola Morgan, Donna Conner and Dawn McNiff, authors who have written about voice-hearing or visions, discussed how they have presented these issues in books written for young people. The event was held as part of the wider ‘Conversations with Ourselves’ programme, funded by the Wellcome Trust, which the ‘Hearing the Voice’ research team at Durham University was a key partner in. I was drawn to the event, as I have previously worked as a tutor teaching young people, and I wondered how these authors had presented the challenging topic of voice-hearing in a way that is accessible to a young audience. I am also aware of the lack of first-person narratives of psychosis written by teenagers, and I was interested to learn how authors had imagined and dramatized the experience of voice-hearing. I hoped that I would hear descriptions of voice-hearing that seemed realistic, and that the young person would be shown to grow with the experience, in a way where they could better cope with it.
Nicola Morgan, an established authority on the teenage brain has written The Teenage Guide to Stress. She explained that this book grew out of a survey of the different stresses that teenagers experience, such as those associated with exams or relationships. She pointed out that adolescent stresses are different to those which adults’ experience. Morgan read an excerpt from the end of her book, when a teenager explains that now she is able to cope with stress, as she wants to help other teenagers realise that this is possible. Morgan pointed out that in a supportive family, a teenager feels able to have emotional outbursts, and in this way can release emotions. However, in a non-supportive family, the young person takes on the role of the adult. Morgan suggested that for teenagers who face trauma or pressure, and find themselves troubled with unusual experiences, such as hearing a voice, it is important for them to find the right person to talk to. In this way they will discover that they are not alone. The Chair for the panel discussion, Lorna MacDonald, said that for the young person feeling that they are not alone is an important first step to getting help.
All of the authors emphasised that it is important not to pathologise the voice-hearing experience, as this may stop a young person from seeking help. Hearing voices or having visions does not necessarily mean that a young person has an illness. Ben Alderson-Day has recently written a post on voice-hearing in people who do not have psychosis or any other particular mental health problem. (If you’ve missed it, it’s still up here.) As Morgan suggested, besides people with schizophrenia, 1% of people will hear a voice when no-one is there. In the cases of both protagonists considered in Donna Conner’s Skinny and Dawn McNiff’s Little Celeste, the unusual experiences were triggered by difficult events, and it is important for the young people concerned to work through their emotional issues. Donna Conner, the author of Skinny, follows an overweight teenage girl, Ever Davies, who hears a vicious and undermining voice, which she calls Skinny. Her voice is linked to her very low self-esteem, and the bullying that she experiences at school because she is morbidly obese. Conner candidly related her exploration in this book to her own experience of hearing an inner, critical voice telling her that she needed to lose weight, before she had weight loss surgery. As Conner said, ‘everyone has a skinny’, in the sense that most people have something that they feel insecure about.
McNiff in Little Celeste describes how her protagonist, a child called Shelley finds a baby on her bed. Shelley is about to go to secondary school, and she feels abandoned by her Mum, who is distressed because her boyfriend has recently left her. For Shelley, the baby feels like a real baby. The baby grows into a toddler and shrinks again. By looking after the baby, Shelley learns to soothe and calm herself. McNiff said that she is interested in how the imagination heals. McNiff pointed out that it is very difficult for Shelley to have her own needs fulfilled. Shelley learns through caring for the needs of the baby. However, once Shelley starts to stick up for herself, she ends up not needing the baby.
In a discussion among the panel after the authors’ individual presentations, Morgan said that ‘I firmly believe the more we understand about how we react, that is the best way towards understanding mental health’. Morgan suggested that this place of understanding is crucial, for hopefully the young person can discuss what is on their mind before they are under such pressure that they begin to hear a stressed, negative voice. As Lorna MacDonald pointed out, stress can manifest itself in different ways, and she pointed out that some young people start to hear voices and see visions that are not there. Donna Connor made the helpful point that ‘the worst bully of all is the one that lives between your own two ears’. Therefore, the overall message communicated to the audience by the different authors was that young people need to feel that they can ask for help, as receiving support can make a real difference. As Morgan pointed out, talking therapy works better if it is started earlier.
Voice-hearing experiences are fairly common and are not necessarily in themselves a cause for concern. However, if you hear voices and these experiences continue to cause significant distress or interfere with your relationships or daily activities, you should seek the advice of your GP or family doctor and seek other sources of sympathetic support. In the UK, the Hearing Voices Network offers information, support and understanding to people who hear voices. Voice Collective also provides excellent online resources, peer support groups and creative workshops designed specifically for young people who experience voices and visions and their families and carers. Many people find it helpful to engage with other people who hear voices. If you live in Scotland or the North-East of England are are looking for a support group in the region, you might find it useful to consult our interactive map of peer support groups, which contains the contact details, times and locations of many Hearing Voices groups, including those specifically for adolescents and young adults.