Deafness and mental health

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By Nina Thomas @ninathomasart

Nina is a founding member of The Film Bunch – their mission is to improve access for deaf and hard of hearing people to mainstream short films, and a trustee at StageText, an organisation that aims to make theatre and culture accessible to deaf, deafened and hard of hearing people.

A performance of 4:48 Psychosis, a play written by the playwright Sarah Kane was recently produced by Deafintely Theatre. The play is a powerful, critical and often unsettling exploration of experiences of mental illness and treatment. Deaf people are twice as likely to experience mental illness compared to their hearing peers, so there is a clear need to begin a conversation about the relationship between deafness, mental health and mental health provisions. Deafintely’s interpretation of 4:48 Psychosis movingly captured the experience of mental illness from a deaf perspective and the communication barriers that exist between many health professionals and deaf people. What happens when the places we go for help and support are isolating and inaccessible?

According to a report by SignHealth ‘19% of deaf people had missed more than five NHS appointments because of communication problems.’ (Deaf people and suicide, 2007). It’s vital then that health provisions for deaf people are made more accessible and welcoming, allowing for meaningful communication and understanding, so that deaf people receive appropriate treatment and early intervention should it be needed.

Evidence suggests that deaf children born to hearing parents are more likely to experience depression than deaf children with deaf parents, why is this? Perhaps the difference may be explained by the lack of early exposure to sign language and the absence of other deaf people in the child’s life, people with whom they may identify and share experiences. Yet 90% of deaf children are born deaf to hearing parents who may not know another deaf person or sign language, but with the correct support in place, these children can thrive. It’s my belief that medical aids such as hearing aids and cochlear implants should be offered in combination with other support such as British Sign Language (BSL) training and quality appropriate access provisions. Lack of support for deaf children in school is another significant issue leading to low academic achievement, isolation and poor self-esteem. Yet 70% of deaf children in the UK attend mainstream schools with no specialist provision. All these factors need to be considered when we look for answers.

I recently realised that I define my life in two separate parts: before I lost my hearing and after I lost my hearing. It’s a significant definition because before I lost my hearing I could easily go to the cinema, listen to music, go to clubs, chat with a group of friends, watch TV without subtitles, follow a conversation with my family and friends over a meal, catch jokes – all these everyday things that we take for granted and which make us feel connected to one another and the world around us. Since losing such moments my experience of the world has completely changed and navigating a life post-hearing loss has been challenging and often very isolating.

In Bella Bathurst’s ‘Sound’, a story of her hearing loss journey she explores the experience of becoming deafened. Bathurst speaks to Dr Austen, Consultant Clinical Psychologist at the National Deaf Mental Health Service Unit in Birmingham, who explains:

‘If you’ve got a spinal injury – and I did work briefly in Stoke Mandeville – you have a very powerful experience with a group of people who are all in the same hospital for a long time. So, by the time you come out of there, you know what others are experiencing, you’ve got an identity, you’ve got a shared community. But with people losing their hearing, they go away and attempt to hide’.

My experience as a deafened person is different to that of someone born deaf and for whom BSL may be their first language, or for those who are fluent BSL users and are part of the Deaf Community. Deafened people are often diagnosed and sent away with very little support and without access to a community. There is great value in being part of a community of people with shared experiences and who face similar challenges. I was living in Derby when I experienced a sudden hearing loss; I was diagnosed and simply sent away with an appointment to come back for a hearing aid a month later. I was given no further help, advice or direction on how to navigate life as a deaf person. I knew there was a deaf community in Derby, but I didn’t know BSL and hadn’t met any deaf people, nor did I really know how to. I did discover lip-reading classes, a very welcoming group but found they were all significantly older than me. It was only several years later when I moved to London and became involved with The Film Bunch that I first met other people my age that were facing similar challenges. The experience that most helped in those years between came in the form of a Channel Four comedy called ‘Cast Offs’, in which Sophie Woolley played Gabby, a deaf mum to be. It was the first time I had seen a young deaf person on screen who captured something of what I was experiencing. In an interview at the time Sophie talked about social situations with hearing people:

“It annoys me when they leave me out of conversations and tell me I wouldn’t want to know what they are talking about anyway. Sometimes they’re right, and that’s even more annoying after I’ve insisted on being let in on the joke and it indeed turns out to be rubbish. Why bother speaking if it’s just drivel? People should try harder to be witty and try harder to communicate that wit to me”

Sophie Woolley

I found this very funny and could relate to the situation. I shared the interview with many of my friends at the time (all hearing) and it allowed me to communicate to them something of what it was like to be deaf in a hearing world. This is one reason why I feel strongly about the need for better representation of deaf and disabled people. My experience of sudden hearing loss was incredibly isolating and lonely, but Sophie’s work helped significantly. I admire her ability to treat deaf experience seriously through comedy. Laughter, particularly shared laughter makes us all feel less alone and it is one way in which we can deal with life’s inevitable challenges.

Recently well-known hearing representatives have advocated on behalf of deaf people. I understand the desire to do this, however, I am concerned when it comes at the expense of deaf representatives because those with lived experience of deafness are best placed to understand what it means to be deaf (in its many forms). Moreover, when hearing representatives take the place of a deaf person, they often silence the voice of those with whom other deaf people could identify. Allowing deaf people to speak for themselves and supporting them to work in high-profile roles is the best way to challenge the notion that deafness is something that should hold anyone back.

It’s important we learn from the mistakes of the past and give deaf people the same opportunity to thrive and achieve as their hearing peers.

The frustrations deaf people have historically experienced living in a hearing world are brilliantly articulated in the Raymond Antrobus poem ‘Dear Hearing World’, which includes the line, ‘You erased what could have always been poetry’. I have previously written about some of the issues this poem touches upon in a blog for History of Place here. Lack of access provisions to even the most basic services, lack of opportunities, language deprivation and difficulties accessing education have had a damaging impact on the lives of many deaf people, stifling their potential and undermining their self-confidence. The reasons a person might experience mental illness are complex, but we do know that experiences of isolation are significant. It’s important we learn from the mistakes of the past and give deaf people the same opportunity to thrive and achieve as their hearing peers.

Nina Thomas

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