How do you Treat Deaf People with Psychological Disorders?


Treating psychological disorders has never been easy, but what about when the patient cannot hear? Members of the Deaf community suffering from psychological disorders need more sensitive treatments in order to avoid any misdiagnoses, or ineffective treatment. According to Sarah A. Landsberger, PhD, and colleagues “Deaf individuals comprise a cultural and linguistic minority group within the United States, and culturally and linguistically appropriate psychiatric treatment must reflect these differences”. The goal of their research was to provide guidance for psychiatrists by reviewing the already existing (yet extremely limited) literature on mental health care for these patients.

Sign Language.

In America approximately 1.2 million people are functionally deaf (meaning an inability to hear even with the use of hearing aids), as well as approximately 9 million people in the Many deaf individuals use American Sign Language (ASL) or British Sign Language (BSL). Both have their own syntax, grammar and vocabulary. In an ideal world, all psychologists would be fluent in all languages, signing and otherwise, but this isn’t the case – it just isn’t possible. The clinicians who are most appropriate for working with the deaf community are those who are fluent in ASL/BSL and are understanding of the values of those who are deaf. More often than not, however, patients fluent in signing are under the care of non signing clinicians who hire an interpreter with training in mental health interpretation. But again, these kinds of translators are rare, so now Dr Landsberger and colleagues are calling for anyone with training in ASL in psychiatric settings to aid in their quest for more effective psychological treatment for the health community.

Communication, Diagnosis and Treatment.

There are unfortunate deaf individuals that haven’t had access to training in sign language. This causes language deficits, meaning that people communicate using miming and gestures. This causes a further problem for finding an appropriate translator, as now we need to find one certified deaf interpreter, as well as a certified ASL/BSL interpreter.

This can also cause problems with diagnosis as it can be extremely difficult to evaluate disorders such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. This is especially so in the case of auditory hallucination. Consider this; how do you explain the concept of hearing voices to someone who has never been able to hear?

Disorganized thoughts, diagnosed through the display of disorganized speech, is a common symptoms of many psychoses. And an effective treatment of this is talking therapy (counseling, CBT etc.) which, as you can imagine, poses a problem for deaf patients.

Dr Landsberger and colleagues believe that “providers should seek specific training and education to become culturally competent providers to deaf people”, what we would expect with any cultural minority. “At a minimum, clinicians who have large numbers of deaf patients in their caseloads should be knowledgeable about Deaf culture and become fluent in sign language.”

It is clear that we are in desperate need of additional research into mental health treatment among the deaf community.


Written by: Philippa Berry.

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Published on: 13th March 2013

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