Hallucinations - What Are They?
I used to have a t-shirt that said, "I hear voices and they don't like you." I thought it was funny - but I also understand why many people think it contributes to mental illness stigma. For people who really do "hear voices," this joke is no joke at all.
A hallucination, at its simplest, is perceiving something that isn't there. Someone having hallucinations is awake and aware. With no external cause, one or more of his senses perceives something vivid and substantial that appears to be coming from outside his head.
The most common hallucinations are auditory - hearing something when there really is no sound. I experience an almost constant auditory hallucination of a choir humming in my right ear. It is annoying as hell but not dangerous. On the other hand, extreme auditory hallucinations can go so far as to have deadly consequences. Andrea Yates, the Texas mother who killed her children, heard voices telling her she had to send them to heaven to save them. She was later diagnosed with postpartum psychosis.
Visual hallucinations also can go from mild to extreme. At their worst, they are terrifying, as in the case of someone who sees a vision of a demon or of someone with a gun pointed at her.
Other senses can be involved with hallucinations as well. A person may taste or smell something when nothing to taste or no odor is present, or feel that he or she is touched when no one is there.
On the other hand, it's quite common to smell something suddenly and not have it be hallucinatory - it's probably a memory that was so clear you actually experienced the scent again.
In my case, my auditory hallucinations are thought to be caused by the trauma of my mother's death, and not by my bipolar disorder. But in most cases, recurring hallucinations - strong, vivid sensations that something is there when it is not there - are a serious symptom that needs to be reported to a healthcare professional right away.