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New therapy reduces the influence of hearing voices in youth

27 September 2019

​A new psychotherapy reduces the influence of hearing voices (or: auditory verbal hallucinations) in children aged 8 to 18 years old. The therapy aims to strengthen the skills that the children need in order to cope with these voices. This is the conclusion of research conducted by Kim van Slobbe-Maijer, child and adolescent psychiatrist at the Bascule, a youth mental health care facility Amsterdam, and PhD student at the UMCG. Children seeking help for hearing voices often suffer from several mental health issues, which justifies broad clinical screening. Kim van Slobbe-Maijer will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen on 30 September.

People experiencing auditory hallucinations hear things in the absence of an actual external sound. They may hear a variety of things: from undefinable noise or mumbling to clear music or voices that speak, whisper or shout. If the sounds present themselves as speaking voices, the phenomenon is referred to as ‘auditory verbal hallucinations’ or ‘hearing voices’. Van Slobbe’s research shows that about one in eight children and adolescents hear things in the absence of external sounds. The phenomenon is therefore relatively frequent, especially in this age category, with about 5% of adults experiencing auditory hallucinations. Moreover, about one quarter (23.6%) of this group of children might be in need of clinical care.

Multiple psychiatric disorders

Van Slobbe’s research shows that children who seek help themselves are often not only afflicted by these hallucinations but often suffer from multiple psychiatric disorders. She therefore advocates offering broad clinical screening to this patient group. According to Van Slobbe, treatment should initially focus on the underlying causes, if any, and information about auditory hallucinations.

Effects of a new therapy

Together with colleagues and patients, Van Slobbe developed a new psychotherapy called Sterker dan je Stemmen (‘Stronger than your Voices’). This therapy is intended for children between the ages of 8 and 18 years who hear voices, irrespective of the underlying causes. The therapy focuses on strengthening the skills required to cope with hearing voices. The purpose is to increase the patients’ understanding of and control over these voices, reducing their influence and negative consequences for the patients. Sometimes, the hallucinations diminish or even completely disappear. However, this is not a goal in itself. Van Slobbe’s research shows that the effects of the voices were indeed reduced among her research population. The therapists were also enthusiastic using Stronger than your Voices and were able to work with the protocol without extensive prior training or supervision during sessions. 

Low-threshold screening

Van Slobbe recommends that Municipal Health Services provide low-threshold psychiatric screening for children in order to identify high-risk children at an early stage. She advocates further research to investigate at an early stage which factors indicate that the verbal hallucinations are harmless and which factors appear to be precursors of psychiatric problems. If the latter, the types of problems and how they can be prevented should be identified.

Curriculum Vitae

Kim van Slobbe-Maijer (1984, Naarden) studied Medicine at Utrecht University. She conducted her research at the Stemmenpoli Jeugd (Voices Outpatient Clinic for Youth) at the UMC Utrecht as well as at the UMCG Research School of Behavioural and Cognitive Neurosciences. Her thesis is entitled ‘Auditory Hallucinations in Youth’. She is currently working as a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the Bascule, a youth mental health care facility in Amsterdam.​