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Mental health needs of deaf people neglected, review shows

Experts say the NHS must improve access to and quality of care

Mark Gould

Friday, 16 March 2012

Deaf people are around twice as likely to have mental health problems as the general population. But where they require help, researchers report disparities in access to and quality of care according to a review in The Lancet.

Hearing specialist, Dr Johannes Fellinger, from the Health Centre for the Deaf at the Hospital of St John of God, Linz, Austria, and Medical University, Vienna and colleagues reviewed studies from across Europe and North America.

The review finds that deaf children who cannot make themselves understood within their family are four times more likely to be affected by mental health disorders than those who are from families who successfully communicate.

They are also more likely to be victims of maltreatment at school. A study of deaf young Norwegian people showed that deaf boys were three times as likely, and deaf girls twice as likely to report sexual abuse compared with hearing controls. Deaf patients report fear, mistrust, and frustration in health-care services. Not only are there communication barriers in clinical situations, but also limitations in deaf patients´ access to health information.

In a linked comment, UK experts say that there are some 70,000 people who are profoundly deaf in the UK and that deaf people experience considerable problems with communication in a healthcare setting.

Dr Andrew Alexander, Royal United Hospital, Bath, Dr Paddy Ladd, Centre for Deaf Studies, University of Bristol, UK, and Steve Powell, SignHealth, Beaconsfield, UK, point out that in many cases lip-reading is not reliable, writing notes is inadequate, and British Sign Language (BSL) interpreters are scarce.

They say: “Patients from the Deaf community have the same need for good communication and safe care as everyone else. Clinicians have a responsibility to recognise that communication is a two-way process, and that they need assistance to communicate with this group of patients. So what should you do when you meet your next patient from the Deaf community? Putting yourself in their shoes and asking them how best to communicate would be a good start.”

The authors point to two documents that have the potential to reduce inequities in access to mental health care and to improve the quality of services. The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has already been ratified by several countries and documents the positive value of sign language. The UK Government document ‘Mental health and deafness—towards equity and access’, provides guidelines for best practice. These include making eye-contact with the patient, adding visual elements to the explanation, ensuring the patient has a good view of your face, and avoiding simultaneous comments during examination: explain first what you are about to examine, examine the patient, then explain what you have found, each as a separate step.

The authors conclude: “Improved access to health and mental health care can be achieved by provision of specialist services with professionals trained to directly communicate with deaf people and with sign-language interpreters.”

And a Lancet editorial concludes: “Deaf patients face the prospect of a fragmented health service under the current Health and Social Care Bill. Fragmented services cause poor communication between agencies, and poor communication damages patient care. If this government continues to ignore the warnings, a Deaf Clinical Network of the kind proposed by SignHealth will be more important than ever. Deaf people have long been denied the services they need.”

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