Let’s Stop Waiting for the World to Change

Supporting Deaf Individuals with Mental Health Challenges

Mental health issues in the deaf community present unique problems and opportunities. The problems are obvious. As a minority within a minority, deaf individuals who struggle with mental illness are more likely to be overlooked in schools and sidelined in the work-world than their hearing counterparts. When noticed, they are often incorrectly diagnosed.

It’s difficult to differentiate the normal frustration of a deaf person’s sometimes inadequate cross-cultural communication from the chronic, defensive loneliness and despair of a person with psychiatric problems. Most recent psychiatry has become rigid and with an overemphasis on chemical fixes and a set of diagnoses tailored to inform insurance companies. We wait for government programs that have not come and will not come.

All of us have a catalog of examples of misinterpretation between deaf and hearing people with differences in style and moves. Even so basic a deal cultural signal as eye contact or touch may lead to misunderstanding.

The majority of deaf individuals struggling with mental illness have never been seen by a professional who understands deafness or the deaf subculture, although many of the schools, colleges, prisons, etc. may know or intuit that someone is disturbed. This lack of experience precludes long term visitation of special therapy for the deaf. Now and then interpreters may be provided for special needs, but it has been in nobody’s interest inside these institutions to see to the psychological needs of the deaf people in their care.

Those of us who praise ASL, as I do, must also realize that for most of us, ASL is a daunting language to learn and requires a long and difficult course of study. It’s lack can create major barriers between parents and children. If the adolescent or adult deaf son or daughter is mentally ill and in the home, how is real communication to be carried out?

For a deaf mentally ill person, therapy may be available, but most of it involves interpreters. Now, I’m imagining myself sitting in a clinician’s office. I am speaking my anguish to an interpreter who will give a literal translation of my words. Many psychiatric and psychological concepts aren’t readily available from English to ASL, as many ideas are a struggle for ASL to English.

Then, there is the intimacy problem. A third person mediating the most personal opening and unfolding of intimate secrets is nothing any of us would choose. The frustration for the patient is daunting enough. Consider the frustration for the therapist who is far more likely to misinterpret many facets of the deaf subculture and misdiagnose the problem. Few psychologists, social workers or psychiatrists are expert in sign language and/or with a family background in deafness. The doctor is also more likely to feel that he isn’t getting through to a deaf client and so prescribe more and higher dosages of psychotropic medication.

Now comes the difficult part: No prince is in the wings with immense funds to whisk away these problems. Changes of leadership won’t do it and neither will campaigning for a slice of the pie which, after AIDS, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and all the other ailments, is liable to amount to a single withered blueberry. It’s about time we stopped taking inordinate energy to go after elusive government grants. We can do more ourselves.

There are day clinics set up for mentally ill people who run the clinics and hire outside expertise. Why are not such clinics available to deaf people? Private funds are available to hire people trained in the appropriate modes of communication. We might inform our lobbyists to help this happen, but the basics are ours to work out. With such clinics, it would be easier to get the local associations for the deaf and those for the mentally ill to come together to the advantage of both.

This is difficult, but do-able . There will be balking, but the charm of my idea is that no huge amount of money is necessary. We also need to address the hesitation of deaf people toward volunteering their time and energy to work with their mentally ill fellows. This piece of the problem is necessary and sorely lacking.

Deaf people are used to being clients, cases, recipients of services. Some are frightened by bad experiences with hearing professionals, but signers are no loner mistaken for developing mentally disabled people. Sign is no longer seen as jargon. Deaf people may need to step forward as some hearing have, to visit the prisons and hospitals where their contemporaries are and establish contact with them. It’s time to get past the passivity in which the community has, with some notable exceptions, been slumbering.

We now have deaf people trained as therapists, and my suggestion is that deaf volunteers be trained to do therapy with the addition of supervision by these trained professionals. Programs using such workers have been in the hearing world for years, in churches and as peer counselors and in mental health centers throughout the country.

Volunteering sounds like such a balsa wood and paper solution in such a major problem, but we know that ninety per cent of the nation’s rural and exurban fire departments are volunteer and that almost all of the mountain and up-country rescue groups are run by trained volunteers. Our churches and synagogues, our scout troops and school events are volunteer-run. If deaf people want services, and if the parents of deaf children want services, they must begin to provide them for one another without reference to the changes in government.

I’m helping to support a group of mentally ill people and their friends who have established a day drop-in center where troubled and mentally ill people can meet and find sympathetic and knowledgeable help from others who are or have been mentally ill themselves. These free-standing clinics exist all over the country. Why don’t the deaf have them? Private subscription can cover these expenses. The clinics function that way. Often, just knowing that mentally ill people don’t always have to be on the receiving end is a great help in their recovery. Why not this for the deaf as well?

Editors Note: Joanne Greenberg is the author of twelve novels and many short stories, including The Monday Voices, The King’s Persons, In This Sign, a story that centers on a deaf couple and the problems that hey encounter over the span of almost fifty years. Her most famous book is I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, the semi-autobigraphical story of a teen in treatment for mental illness. She was born in Brooklyn and graduated from the American University in Colorado as well as the University of London, England. She is known for her forthright style and passion for social issues. Many of her books were published under the pseudonym Hannah Green.