Hearing voices in childhood may be common

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Many children and adolescents may hear voices that aren’t really there, but most don’t suffer any long-term effects of the imaginary chatter, according to a new study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry. As Reuters reports, a study of 3,870 Dutch preschoolers found that nearly one in ten reported hearing voices “that only you and no one else can hear.” Yet, though 9% of these seven- and eight-year-olds reported hearing voices, few of them said that the voices bothered them or disturbed their thinking.

Previous study has found that as many as 16% of children and adolescents of sound mental health hear voices that aren’t really there. While, in some instances hearing voices may indicate a heightened risk for mental disorders such as schizophrenia, the authors of this latest study suggest that, in the great majority of cases, children who hear voices do not go on to develop mental illness. Of the nearly 350 children included in the study who reported hearing voices, only 15% said that the chatter caused them serious suffering, and 19% said that the voices interfered with their thinking. The team of researchers from University Medical Center Groningen in the Netherlands also found that while boys and girls were equally likely to report hearing voices, girls were more likely to be upset by them.

Additionally, while the researchers expected to find that more urban children reported hearing voices, in fact, that was more common among children from rural areas. What they did find though, was that kids who lived in urban areas reported higher levels of disturbance due to the voices, something the researchers suggested might indicate a higher risk for developing mental disorders later in life. The researchers are currently conducting a five-year follow-up study to examine the more long-term impact of hearing voices in childhood.

While the researchers are eager to gain a better understanding of mental illness risk factors associated with hearing voices in childhood, they emphasize that, for most children, hearing voices will not have long-term consequences. As Agna A. Bartels-Velthuis, one of the study’s authors, told Reuters, “In most cases the voices will just disappear.” And for parents whose children may be hearing voices, she offered this advice: “I would advise them to reassure their child and to watch him or her closely.”