Pradeep Sabat, a Deaf Role Model in India, working with a teenager to develop her sign language skills. Credit: Deaf Child Worldwide

Deaf children and mental health: the challenges and how we’re tackling them

In the wake of World Mental Health Day, I’d like to talk about an often-ignored subject – the emotional well-being of children and young people who are deaf.

It’s well documented that the challenges deaf people face place them at a significantly high risk of mental health problems. Research in the UK has shown deaf adults to be twice as likely to be affected by mental health problems as their hearing peers.

Now consider the situation in South Asia. In the rural areas where Deaf Child Worldwide operates, mental health services are practically non-existent, let alone specific mental health support for deaf children and young people.

Our partner organisations noticed that the deaf children and young people that they worked with often seemed to exhibit emotional and behavioural problems, manifested by extremes of behaviour, ranging from being withdrawn to aggressive acting out.

Communication challenges

With our partners, we’ve identified several reasons why deaf children and young people are experiencing such emotional challenges.

First of all, deaf children in these communities can face language and communication barriers. Late diagnosis and a lack of access to hearing technology also mean deaf children often have significant language delays. And because they don’t get the support they need, their families, schools and communities struggle to communicate with them.

Because deaf children and young people face daily struggles to be understood, even by their own families, they often experience feelings of isolation, loneliness and frustration. Often a deaf child is the only deaf person in their family or even their whole community, so there’s no one to share their feelings with.

Deaf children are sometimes bullied or experience stigma, discrimination or inequality because of their deafness. And in stressful situations, many deaf children are left anxious because no one adequately explains the situation to them.

Frontline responders

Our partners in South Asia employ Deaf Role Models (DRMs). These are deaf adults who support deaf children to develop language and communication skills and build literacy. This can include giving sign language lessons, making schoolwork more accessible and keeping children informed about wider issues in the community, which might not have been adequately explained to them.

Deaf children frequently confide in the DRMs and express feelings of anger, frustration and withdrawal. But they may develop more serious mental health issues if their concerns are not adequately addressed at an early stage. Yet intervening in this way requires a level of knowledge the DRMs simply didn’t possess. So, at the end of 2021, Deaf Child Worldwide began working with Basic Needs India (BNI) to train DRMs in mental health awareness.

The power of early intervention

Thanks to the collaboration between DCW and BNI, DRMs are learning how to provide a basic level of emotional well-being support to deaf children, and to recognise when symptoms are severe enough to refer a child to professional mental health services.

The training takes a process-oriented approach and begins by addressing DRMs’ own inner strengths, thus triggering their self-confidence. It then explores the emotional and psychosocial development of children and young people. The DRMs also learn about how families and society influence human behaviour, and how to help deaf children and their families understand each other better.

The DRMs are already applying some of the things they’ve learnt. They will continue to be trained throughout 2022, and we’ll be assessing the outcomes periodically with BNI.

An emotional safety net

The training will enable DRMs to better understand the emotional needs of the deaf children they work with, who in turn have the safety net of an individual they can communicate their feelings.

As part of our deaf awareness sessions with families, we explain the frustrations of deaf children, many of which are linked to communication. This gives them an insight into why their child might be acting out. This is also discussed in parents’ groups, where the more experienced parents counsel others. Next, the plan is to extend this training to a group of hearing individuals, either staff or parents, to become lay counsellors. For now, by training the DRMs to support the mental health of deaf children, we hope deaf children will feel more secure, with parents who understand their emotions better.

Wider still, it is hoped that the project will result in greater sensitivity and understanding from whole communities of the emotional challenges that deaf children face.

An unrealisable dream?

Accessible and robust mental health services for deaf children and young people in the far corners of the countries where we work may yet be an unrealisable dream, but our intention is to provide at least a basic level of mental health support. To that end, DCW, together with BNI, will continue to develop this community-based approach that can provide basic support to deaf children, young people and their families.

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