Almost one in five Irish children between the ages of 11 and 13 have reported 'hearing voices' -- a symptom experts claim could be an early warning sign for a wide variety of mental health illnesses -- according to the findings of a leading Irish research group.

Researchers at the Royal College of Surgeons found that the incidence of auditory hallucinations was highest among the 11-13 age category,  the majority of whom, worryingly, were found to be also suffering from a diagnosable mental health condition besides the hallucinations.

While often a transient phenomenon of late childhood and adolescence, a sizable proportion of those who hear voices, and do so most often, also go on to suffer from one of a wide panoply of mental health illnesses in later life.

Schizophrenia, manic conditions such as bipolar disease, and multiple personality disorder are just three of the serious mental health conditions for which auditory hallucination can be an early warning sign. These conditions  all commonly include the hearing of voices in their diagnoses, which can range from relatively benign alter egos in multiple personality disorder to full-blown nightmare personalities in uncontrolled schizophrenia.

The Royal College of Surgeon's figures, if corroborated, will read as a worrying indication of the extent of mental health problems among Ireland's youth, a traditionally neglected part of Ireland's underfunded public healthcare system.

Ireland's suicide rate was last year found to be running at its highest level since the foundation of the State, with the rise mostly attributable to a strong increase in suicides among middle aged men. Depressive and anxiety disorders are both thought to be highly prevalent, although the exact incidence is hard to detect given that many sufferers either avoid treatment or self-medicate.

Yet despite the figures a 'deafening silence' often surrounds discussion of such problems. Rugby player and 'tough guy' Alan Quinlan recently broke one of the last major taboos in Irish society by giving a website an emotional interview about his battle with depression, but more public figures will be needed to really send a clear message to those suffering from such problems that sharing the burden is preferable to wallowing in silence.

While not directly related to either depression or suicide, the auditory hallucination figures should give Irish policymakers pause for thought when assessing how the mental health picture reads among Ireland's youth, a question that has received scant attention in population surveys conducted to date.

The upper end of the survey's estimations of the hallucinations -- 23% -- is not far off a frightening one-in-four figure, which is certainly a lot higher than many laypersons would have imagined it to be.

The auditory hallucinations commonly extend until 16 years old, and can go on for life without effective treatment, part of which involves getting the patient to acknowledge the hard reality that the 'alien voices' inside his head are not his or her own.

As to what the 'voices' exactly consist of,  Dr Ian Kelleher of the Department of Psychiatry at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RSCI), offered the following explanation:

"Auditory hallucinations can vary from hearing an isolated sentence now and then, to hearing 'conversations' between two or more people lasting for a several minutes.

"It may present itself like screaming or shouting, and other times it could sound like whispers or murmurs. It varies greatly from child to child, and frequency can be once a month to once every day.