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More so than ever before, the mental health of the deaf community is being impacted by world events. It’s time to read the signs, and lend a hand to those in need

The coronavirus pandemic has impacted the world greatly, and we’re all getting used to the ‘new normal’ list of leaving-the-house essentials – your keys, wallet, bag and face mask. And while putting on that mask is something most of us can manage just fine, for someone with a hearing impairment, putting on a mask can have a great impact. Face masks may protect us from the virus, but they also create more communication barriers for those in the deaf community.

YouTuber and deaf awareness advocate Louise Goldsmith spoke of her struggles as a deaf person during the Covid-19 crisis. “I walked past a retail worker who smiled politely while wearing her mask, but what I didn’t realise was that she was speaking to me. It was only when my partner, Jack, who is hearing, pointed out she was complimenting my mask that I became aware.”

But alongside these difficulties in communicating, Louise highlights how individuals have been kind and supportive during the pandemic. “Retail workers have been great – when I tell them I am deaf, they often lower their masks behind the clear screen so I can see their mouths.”

As a lot of people with hearing impairments rely on mouth patterns and lip reading, wearing a mask has made many people feel more isolated. Since face masks have become mandatory, there has been no formal acknowledgement of support for the deaf community with regards to how they cope with this requirement. However, members of the public have taken the initiative to address the issue, with seamstresses creating masks with ‘windows’ to help those with hearing loss to see others’ mouths, while keeping faces covered.

While it’s clear that Covid-19 has impacted the mental wellbeing of the deaf community, it’s important to be aware that even before the pandemic, deaf individuals have disproportionately struggled with mental health issues. Out of the 66 million people living in the UK, 11 million experience hearing loss. While we’re all familiar with the stats on one in four people in the UK experiencing mental ill-health, in the deaf community the prevalence of mental illness can range from 30–60%. The question is, why is mental illness more common for those with hearing impairments, and how we can help?

The main thing it often comes down to is communication. Some deaf individuals feel incredibly isolated due to not being able to hear or speak with others easily, which can have a knock-on effect on their mental wellbeing. In particular, the Mental Health Foundation reports that childhood is the peak time for deaf people to experience mental health issues, with deaf children tending to show more signs of depression, anxiety, and low self-concept.

Part of the issue could relate to being deaf within a mainstream school, which can result in a wide range of communication barriers. One report revealed that hearing individuals who are not confident in how to communicate with their deaf peers, may simply choose not to communicate at all. And yet, when communication between both deaf and hearing individuals is effective, this can greatly impact their development, with both being found to show an increase in intelligent speech, social skills, and positive interactions, according to a study published in The Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education.

Another issue is the lack of information on mental illness provided to individuals with hearing loss, whether that be due to medical professionals not speaking British Sign Language, or the difficulty translating screening tools. In fact, research from the University of Bath revealed that only a small number of deaf individuals understood the term ‘psychosis’. This can result in people not being aware of the signs, symptoms, or that they should reach out for help.

It’s critical for deaf individuals to have access to interpreters in their therapy sessions, or to find a BSL counsellor

“It’s hard for deaf people to gain access to mental health services due to their inability to seek help,” explains Emma Baird, who has deaf relatives. A lot of health information outlets for hearing individuals – such as radio and TV – simply aren’t accessible for the deaf community.

The good news is that in recent years, the number of mental health services that specifically target people with hearing loss has risen greatly, which, in turn, has meant that more deaf individuals are seeking help. In the UK, there are currently three specialised deaf mental health services – in Manchester, London, and Birmingham.

However, having access to information and help is one thing, the next step of actually speaking out is another. A lot of hearing individuals will know how hard this can be, and for the deaf community there are even more challenges when doing so.

When searching for face-to-face therapy, it’s critical for deaf individuals to have access to interpreters in their therapy sessions, or to find a BSL counsellor. Interpreters would need to be booked in advance, and emergency appointments can cause even more disruptions and stress when trying to get help.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that while therapy can be an incredibly useful tool for a lot of people, it’s not the right support for everyone. In particular, for some deaf people, requiring an interpreter may mean they feel unable to freely express themselves, or there could be a concern that something could get lost in translation. While there are a wide range of counsellors for hearing individuals, there are currently around 20 specialists who use BSL within the UK – so options are far more limited.

Illustration of mouths covered and face masks

Nowadays, and particularly since the increase in social restrictions, technology has helped to support our mental health. Minicams and text-phones are widely available in health services, which offer those with hearing loss more autonomy, plus there are many speech-to-text apps that people can download to support with real-time conversations.

So while strides are being made with regards to providing more access to mental health support for the deaf community, it’s still so important for hearing individuals to raise awareness around the difficulties these individuals face, and what we can do to better support them.

One way to support those with hearing loss is by learning the basics of BSL. As well as formal courses, thanks to lockdown restrictions, teachers and online information has never been so accessible, including via social media.

A good person to follow is the deaf YouTuber Jazzy. She has the most positive attitude and uses BSL, but adds subtitles so hearing individuals can watch her vlogs, while also learning BSL!


Support for deaf individuals:

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

For hearing individuals who want to support the deaf community, Action Against Hearing Loss also accepts donations, or you can find out more about learning BSL at British-sign.co.uk.

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