Deaf Awareness Month sheds light on mental health in the deaf community

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As September is Deaf Awareness Month, a local psychiatrist in Bloemfontein, Dr Ian Westmore, unpacks the importance of recognising mental health amongst the deaf community of South Africa.

“The deaf community, like any other, is not immune to mental health challenges, with depression, anxiety, and substance abuse being common adversaries,” he said.

For those born deaf, Dr Westmore says early life stressors associated with the disability can exasperate mental health conditions later in life.

“The inability to communicate and participate in conversations, linguistic neglect, poverty, trauma, and abuse can influence a child born deaf’s functioning and stress response which, in turn, impacts how they cope with stressors in adulthood.”

Dr Westmore emphasised that mental health challenges faced by the deaf community are fundamentally distinct from those of the general population where “healthcare professionals must account for gaps in knowledge and emotional vocabulary, cultural backgrounds, and the inability to communicate mental health symptoms.”

“Access to quality education is another challenge, particularly for deaf children in South Africa. This educational disadvantage can lead to lower socioeconomic status and heightened stress, contributing further to mental health issues.”

Dr Westmore’s potential solutions to addressing mental health within South Africa’s deaf community:

  • Training of medical professionals: GPs and clinics are in many instances the first point of call for patients. Healthcare providers need to be trained in basic Sign Language to help bridge the communication divide and improve the quality of care for deaf individuals.
  • Deaf-friendly mental health services: Specialised mental health services designed to cater to the deaf community should be established, providing a safe and welcoming environment where individuals can seek help without fear of miscommunication or discrimination.
  • Awareness campaigns: Initiatives to raise awareness about the mental health challenges faced by the deaf community are essential. These campaigns can help reduce stigma and foster greater understanding among the general population.
  • Community support: Peer support groups and community organisations can play a crucial role in providing emotional support and resources for deaf individuals struggling with mental health issues.
  • Education: Mental health providers need a deeper understanding of hearing loss, its association with psychiatric disorders, and the treatment of these disorders. Accurate diagnoses hinge on healthcare professionals’ familiarity with the unique challenges faced by the deaf community and the profound impact of hearing loss on their lives.
  • Checklists: All healthcare professionals should be equipped with symptom-based checklists that the deaf person or their family member can complete, keeping in mind poor literacy and educational attainment.
  • Careers in mental health: Encouraging members of the deaf community to consider careers in mental health can help bridge the gap in accurately diagnosing conditions and providing culturally sensitive care.

Compiled by Gypseenia Lion