With more than 1 million individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing in Arizona and more than 48 million nationwide, it is natural to assume that access to quality health care for those with a hearing loss would be the same as for those whose hearing is intact. The reality is that it is not. May is both Better Hearing and Speech Month (BHSM) and Mental Health Month (MHM), and together, both causes connect on an important issue within the deaf and hard of hearing communities.
Individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing are an underserved cultural and linguistic population within the nation’s mental health system. Unfortunately, it is all too common that a cultural, language or communication issue is mistaken for a developmental delay or mental illness. Additionally, there is evidence to show that those who are deaf or hard of hearing are more likely to experience depression, anxiety, cognitive decline and social isolation.
A recent article from Gallaudet University reports that individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing, especially youth, have more mental health problems or symptoms than their hearing peers. There is also research to support that low self-esteem or self-concept can predict mental health problems, an issue that is more prevalent within the deaf and hard of hearing communities.
Moreover, individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing who live in rural areas face an entirely different set of challenges from those who live in more urban regions.
According to the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education Mental Health Program, more than 90 percent of all psychologists and psychiatrists work exclusively in metropolitan areas. As a result of this, rural Americans travel further to receive services because comprehensive services are often unavailable to them. There are also very few programs within the country that train professionals to work competently in rural places.
What is most alarming are that these barriers only exacerbate the risk factors for mental health and social isolation for rural Americans. According to Pepnet 2, a national collaboration of four regional postsecondary education centers, the impact of mental health disorders for the deaf and hard of hearing communities in rural areas is more severe than in urban areas due to issues of:
• Accessibility: This is a result from lack of transportation to and from services, inability to pay for services and a shortage of interpreters.
• Availability: Of the 65 million U.S. residents who live in a “professional shortage area,” 85 percent of those individuals live in rural areas. This issue is worsened by the even fewer mental health professionals who are qualified to work with individuals from the deaf and hard of hearing communities.
• Acceptability: Rural communities often hold more stigmatizing views about mental illness. The impact of this stigma is largely related to cultural beliefs and a lack of understanding about mental health issues.
To combat these issues, organizations that believe everyone should have equal access to mental healthcare, such as the Arizona Commission for the Deaf and the Hard of Hearing (ACDHH), use Better Hearing and Speech Month and Mental Health Month as platforms for educating the population on the services that they provide: hearing assistive technology information; counseling and mental health resources; information about finding an interpreter; family and youth services; and many more.
This month, take a moment to educate yourself on the issues that those who are deaf or hard of hearing and in rural areas face when it comes to obtaining quality healthcare. Moreover, utilize the services that organizations like ACDHH provide to improve both your hearing and overall health.
Sherri Collins is the executive director for the Arizona Commission for the Deaf and the Hard of Hearing. Through her position, Collins advocates, strengthens and implements state policies affecting deaf and hard of hearing individuals, and their relationship to public, industry, healthcare and educational opportunities. For more information about ACDHH, visit acdhh.org.