Cases That Test Your Skills

A 10-year-old boy with ‘voices in my head’: Is it a psychotic disorder?

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M, age 10, reports hearing 'voices in my head' that tell him he is going to choke on his food, and this causes fear and anxiety. Is a psychotic illness the correct diagnosis?


 

References

CASE Auditory hallucinations?

M, age 10, has had multiple visits to the pediatric emergency department (PED) with the chief concern of excessive urinary frequency. At each visit, the medical workup has been negative and he was discharged home. After a few months, M’s parents bring their son back to the PED because he reports hearing “voices in my head” and “feeling tense and scared.” When these feelings become too overwhelming, M stops eating and experiences substantial fear and anxiety that require his mother’s repeated reassurances. M’s mother reports that 2 weeks before his most recent PED visit, he became increasingly anxious and disturbed, and said he was afraid most of the time, and worried about the safety of his family for no apparent reason.

The psychiatrist evaluates M in the PED and diagnoses him with unspecified schizophrenia spectrum and other psychotic disorder based on his persistent report of auditory and tactile hallucinations, including hearing a voice of a man telling him he was going to choke on his food and feeling someone touch his arm to soothe him during his anxious moments. M does not meet criteria for acute inpatient hospitalization, and is discharged home with referral to follow-up at our child and adolescent psychiatry outpatient clinic.

On subsequent evaluation in our clinic, M reports most of the same about his experience hearing “voices in my head” that repeatedly suggest “I might choke on my food and end up seriously ill in the hospital.” He started to hear the “voices” after he witnessed his sister choke while eating a few days earlier. He also mentions that the “voices” tell him “you have to use the restroom.” As a result, he uses the restroom several times before leaving for home and is frequently late for school. His parents accommodate his behavior—his mother allows him to use the bathroom multiple times, and his father overlooks the behavior as part of school anxiety.

At school, his teacher reports a concern for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) based on M’s continuous inattentiveness in class and dropping grades. He asks for bathroom breaks up to 15 times a day, which disrupts his class work.

These behaviors have led to a gradual 1-year decline in his overall functioning, including difficulty at school for requesting too many bathroom breaks; having to repeat the 3rd grade; and incurring multiple hospital visits for evaluation of his various complaints. M has become socially isolated and withdrawn from friends and family.

M’s developmental history is normal and his family history is negative for any psychiatric disorder. Medical history and physical examination are unremarkable. CT scan of his head is unremarkable, and all hematologic and biochemistry laboratory test values are within normal range.

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