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Hearing voices and hallucinations

What are hallucinations?

A hallucination is a sensory experience that occurs in the absence of an external stimulus. For example hearing, seeing, tasting, smelling or feeling something that isn’t there.

Many people think that hallucinations, particularly experiences of hearing voices, are a sign of mental illness. This is not always the case.

5 to 15% of the general population report occasional or fleeting experiences of hearing voices. Around 1% of people have complex and regular voice-hearing experiences without the need for psychiatric care.

Slightly higher rates of voices and visions have been reported in older people compared to the general population, particularly for people over the age of 80.

How does it affect me?

Unusual voices and visions are experiences that can occur across the lifespan, but certain factors seem to make them more likely in older adults. These are thought to include:

  • Sensory loss: Developing problems with one’s hearing or vision can lead to certain kinds of hallucination, such as hearing music or seeing strange patterns in the air.
  • Changes to the brain: Neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s Disease and Lewy-Body Dementia are strongly linked to hallucinations. Often these are experienced as either visual images, or in the form of a “presence” (feeling like someone is close by without being able to see or hear them). Hallucinatory voices sometimes occur as well.
  • Bereavement and other life changes: The loss of loved one is followed for some by the persistent feeling of seeing, hearing, or feeling them to be present. A 1993 study of 50 recently bereaved people found that 30% of participants were hearing the voice of their deceased spouse one month after death; 6% were still hearing them 12 months later. There is also evidence to suggest that being isolated socially can make hallucinations more likely to occur.

My voices and visions are distressing. Where can I get help?

Voices and visions are fairly common and are not in themselves necessarily a cause for concern.  If you find that 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 and those who support them.

Voice Collective  also provides some excellent online resources: these are mostly aimed at young people experiencing voices and visions, but include coping strategies that are useful for all ages.

You might also find it helpful to engage with other people who hear voices, see visions or have other unusual experiences.  If you live in the North-East of England, you may find this map of peer support groups helpful.

How can I help?

Very little is known about what it feels like to hear voices for older people and what kinds of tailored support they might need for help with distressing experiences.  You can help to remedy this situation by taking part an online survey investigating age and unusual perceptions.

The research is being conducted by Hearing the Voice at Durham University.

They are currently looking for volunteers over 60, including people who haven’t heard voices or seen visions before. If you would like to take part, please email Rebecca Finnigan or Dr Ben Alderson-Day or telephone 0191 334 8163.

Read more about this study of age and unusual experiences.

Other useful information

More information about voices and visions can be found in these Frequently Asked Questions produced by Hearing the Voice.

Other useful websites include:

Last updated: August 27, 2020

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