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Accessibility to Mental Health Services in the Deaf Community:
By: Kim Mugimu
May 22, 2023
As an employee of a mental health state agency overseeing Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services in Southeast Massachusetts, one issue that consistently arises is accessibility. Unlike the hearing population, the Deaf and hard of hearing face unique barriers that prevent them from receiving equitable services. These obstacles include limited local access to qualified service providers, a need for more Deaf supported services, and concerns about utilizing interpreters while seeking mental health support due to the stigma surrounding it. The lack of accessibility poses a threat to the well-being of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community that requires and actively seeks support. “Research suggests that 80-90% of individuals with severe and persistent mental illness or severe emotional disturbances who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing do not have access to the mental health system” (Critchfield,2002).
Access to Mental Health Services is challenging for Deaf individuals based on their demographic location. In the suburbs of Boston, there are vast limitations to outpatient therapy and psychiatry that are specific to Deaf clients. This results in long waitlists for intake, ongoing care, and treatment. As a result, many clients seek services in traditional mental health settings. These offices typically do not have a specialty in Deaf Culture or staff that are proficient in ASL. The lack of knowledge can lead to further frustrations for the clients. Research conducted by Fellinger et al. (2013) found, “Deaf communities show high rates of common mental health disorders with difficulties in getting access to health and little knowledge of health issues caused by communication problems”. These finding suggest that frustration can lead to increased feelings of isolation. According to the Community Mental Health Journal (2013), “No health with mental health…they cannot possibly get help for mental health problems when barriers restrict access to general health care”.
Recovery Learning Centers (RLC) are offering a remedy for accessibility issues for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Community and Mental Health in Massachusetts by offering interpreters. This is a place where clients can attend groups facilitated by peers and people with lived experience that are now helping others by being able to relate to the struggles and challenges that clients face. According to Southeast RLC “The RLC will offer a welcoming space for all, provide accessible spaces, and schedule interpreters and groups for our members that speak languages other than English” (https://www.southeastrlc.org). This provides Deaf clients an opportunity to participate and feel understood. While this is a resource for Deaf clients to utilize, it may be more beneficial for Deaf clients to have an RLC dedicated to Deaf and Hard of Hearing Individuals. Cabral et al. (2013) supports this notion by stating, “being able to express themselves to another person without an interpreter removed a barrier that participants often cited”. It is also important to look at how the Deaf community members feel about utilizing peer support with the Deaf Community being so small, especially in Massachusetts. There are ongoing concerns of “confidentiality- and stigma concerns are prevalent among people with are Deaf and have the mental health conditions” (Cabral et al., 2013). With the community being small, it is likely that Deaf individuals may know each other and may not want to be open about their experiences related to Mental Health compared to the hearing with significantly more support in place. The Deaf community should have access to the same confidentiality, although it can be challenging.
Interpreters can assist with access to mental health services in the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community. However, Cabral et al. (2013) found that, “experiences with interpreters vary, with many feeling that interpreters do not always accurately communicate between parties”. This can lead to the Deaf individual not feeling understood, resulting in greater feelings of frustration and isolation. In many instances, clients should have the ability to speak with another Deaf professional as “clients want to be able to establish a relationship with someone who they can easily communicate with and who understands their mental health problems” (Cabral et al., 2013). While interpreters can be a useful resource, members of the Deaf community may prefer to work with a Deaf therapist or therapist fluent in ASL to help keep matters confidential without a third party needing to be present due to communication barriers.
In conclusion, there are many factors of accessibility to mental health services within the Deaf Community. Issues related to resources, having enough qualified service providers, and having service providers that are Deaf and fluent in ASL are just a few. These issues leave individuals with mental health concerns on long waiting lists or needing to utilize interpreters or third parties to receive mental health support. Issues related to confidentiality contribute to the ongoing and overall challenge our Deaf and Hard of Hearing community face every day.
Critchfield, A. B. (2002). Meeting the Mental Health Needs Of Persons Who Are Deaf. National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors and the National Technical Assistance Center for State Mental Health Planning.
Crowe, Theresa (2020). Psychiatric Functioning, Resiliency, and Recovery Among Deaf
Consumers of Public Behavioral Health Services. Community Mental Health Journal (2021) 57:1164-1174. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10597-020-00747-9.
Fellinger, Johannes; Holzinger, Daniel; Pollard, Daniel (2012). Mental Health of Deaf People. Volume 379. March 17, 2012.
Cabral, Linda; Muhr, Kathy& Savageau, Judith (2013). Perspectives of People Who are Deaf and Hard of Hearing on Mental Health, Recovery, and Peer Support. Community Mental Health Journal. Center for Health Policy and Research, University of Massachusetts Medical School.Southeast Area Recovery Learning Center. (2023) https://www.southeastrlc.org
If you are interested to see similar articles in the Lifeprint Library check out:
Unique Considerations for the Deaf Needing Mental Health Care
How Can We Prioritize Deaf Youth's Mental Health Needs?
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