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Accessing Mental Health Care a Challenge for Deaf in MI

September 16, 2013

LANSING, Mich. - Not being able to hear in a hearing world is a difficult challenge on its own, but experts say the deaf and hearing-impaired in Michigan also struggle to get access to mental-health care. More than 950,000 Michigan residents have a form of hearing loss or deafness, and many of them also have mental-health issues.

According to June Walatkiewicz, a clinical social worker who specializes as a mental health provider in the Detroit area, a lack of communication leads to all kinds of barriers in normal psychological development.

"If you can't express your feelings all your life, you can imagine what kind of developmental problems and emotional problems you may end up with," she said.

Many causes of deafness also cause brain damage, behavior problems and learning disabilities. And an estimated 90 percent of deaf children experience some form of abuse, which can lead to or exacerbate mental-health problems. Walatkiewicz is working with the National Association of Social Workers' Michigan chapter to educate state leaders on the problem so changes can be made to improve the lives of the deaf community.

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires that organizations and health-care providers have appropriate communications to meet the needs of all individuals. Walatkeitwicz said it's the deaf community's fundamental right to receive culturally affirmative linguistic services.

"We have specialized services in our state for Hispanic and other culturally-sensitive individuals," she noted. "They get their special services, but why is the deaf community not?"

Walatkeitwicz said trust is important in treatment, which doesn't happen if a person doesn't feel comfortable communicating. She said both professionals who work with individuals with hearing loss and interpreters need specialized training as mental-health specialists.

"When you have a clinician who has no understanding of deafness and the mental health issues that go with deafness and then an interpreter who is not skilled in mental health interpreting issues, you definitely end up with a lot of misdiagnosis and inappropriate treatment."

Additionally, she said, the state needs to create a division within the Department of Community Health that will handle statewide planning, oversight and execution of deaf mental-health services that can provide culturally-competent care.

Mary Kuhlman, Public News Service - MI