Unmasking mental health in the deaf community

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More than ever, world events affect the mental health of the deaf. It is time to read the signs and help those in need

The coronavirus pandemic has had a profound impact on the world and we are all getting used to the “new normal” list of the most important things to keep out of the house – keys, wallet, bag and face mask. And while putting on that mask is something most of us can do well, putting on a mask can go a long way for someone with a hearing impairment. Face masks may protect us from the virus, but they also create more communication barriers for the deaf.

YouTuber and the deaf awareness advocate Louise Goldsmith spoke of their struggles as deaf during the Covid-19 crisis. “I passed a retail worker who was smiling politely while she was wearing her mask, but I didn’t know she was talking to me. It wasn’t until my partner Jack, who is listening, pointed out that she was complimenting my mask that I became aware of it attentive. “

In addition to these communication difficulties, Louise highlights how kind and supportive individuals have been during the pandemic. “Retail workers have been great – when I tell them I’m deaf, they often lower their masks behind the clear screen so I can see their mouths.”

Because many people with hearing impairments rely on mouth patterns and lip reading, wearing a mask makes many people feel more isolated. With face masks becoming mandatory, there has been no formal recognition of support for the deaf community in how they deal with this requirement. However, the public has taken the initiative to address the problem. Seamstresses have created masks with “windows” so that the hearing impaired can see other people’s mouths while keeping their faces covered.

Illustration by BSL

While it is clear that Covid-19 had an impact on the mental well-being of the deaf community, it is important to know that deaf people were struggling disproportionately with mental health problems even before the pandemic. Of the 66 million people in the UK, 11 million have hearing loss. While we are all familiar with the statistics of one in four people in the UK with a mental illness, the prevalence of mental illness in the Deaf community can range from 30 to 60%. The question is why mental illnesses are more common among the hearing impaired and how we can help.

The main thing that often matters is communication. Some deaf people feel incredibly isolated from being unable to hear or talk to others easily, which can negatively affect their mental wellbeing. In particular, the Mental Health Foundation reports that childhood is the high time for deaf people to experience mental health problems, with deaf children tending to show more signs of depression, anxiety, and low self-image.

Part of the problem could be related to being deaf in a mainstream school, which can create a variety of communication barriers. One report found that hearing people who are unsure how to communicate with their deaf counterparts can simply choose not to communicate at all. However, when communication between deaf and hearing people is effective, it can have a significant impact on their development. According to a study published in the Journal of Deaf, both show increases in intelligent language, social skills, and positive interactions in study and deaf education.

Another problem is the lack of information on mental illness made available to people with hearing loss, whether due to medical professionals who do not speak British sign language or the difficulty of translating screening tools. Research from Bath University has shown that few deaf people understood the term “psychosis”. This can leave people unaware of the signs, symptoms, or help.

It is important for the deaf to have access to interpreters in their therapy sessions or to find a BSL counselor

“It is difficult for deaf people to get access to mental health services because they cannot seek help,” explains Emma Baird, who has deaf relatives. Many hearing health information centers – such as radio and television – are simply not accessible to the deaf.

The good news is that in recent years the number of mental health services specifically targeting people with hearing loss has increased significantly, which in turn has resulted in more deaf people seeking help. There are currently three specialized deaf mental health services in the UK – in Manchester, London and Birmingham.

However, having access to information and help is one thing, the next step in actually speaking up is another. Many hearing people will know how difficult this can be, and there are even more challenges for the Deaf community.

When looking for personal therapy, it is important for deaf people to have access to interpreters in their therapy sessions or to find a BSL counselor. Interpreters would need to be booked in advance, and emergency appointments can create even more disruption and stress when trying to get help.

It is also worth remembering that while therapy can be an incredibly useful tool for many people, it is not the right support for everyone. For some deaf people in particular, the need for an interpreter may mean they cannot express themselves freely or there may be a concern that something will be lost in the translation. While there is a wide range of personal hearing consultants out there, there are currently around 20 specialists in the UK using BSL – so the options are far more limited.

Illustration of mouths covered and face masks

Nowadays, and especially since the rise in social limitations, technology has helped support our mental health. Minicams and text phones are widely used in healthcare and provide more autonomy for people with hearing loss. There are also many voice-text apps that can be downloaded to support real-time conversations.

So, while advances are being made to provide better access to mental health support for the deaf community, it is still so important for hearing people to raise awareness of the difficulties these people face and what we can do to make them better to support.

One way to help people with hearing loss is to learn the basics of BSL. Aside from formal courses, teachers and online information have never been more accessible thanks to lockdown restrictions, including on social media.

A good person is the deaf YouTuber Jazzy. She has the most positive attitude and uses BSL but adds subtitles so that hearing people can see her vlogs and learn BSL at the same time!

Support for the deaf:

For those with hearing loss who need assistance or just want to talk to someone please visit signhealth.org.uk or actiononhearingloss.org.uk who have an amazing in-depth knowledge of how to help those who need it most.

For hearing from people who wish to support the deaf community, Action Against Hearing Loss also accepts donations. For more information on learning BSL, please visit British-sign.co.uk.

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