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Addressing Gaps in Care for Michigan's Deaf Community

PHOTO: Experts say deaf individuals in Michigan are not accessing needed care because interpreters are typically not trained in mental health and social workers are unfamiliar with deaf culture. Photo credit: Bert Heymans/Flickr.
PHOTO: Experts say deaf individuals in Michigan are not accessing needed care because interpreters are typically not trained in mental health and social workers are unfamiliar with deaf culture. Photo credit: Bert Heymans/Flickr.
March 30, 2015

LANSING, Mich. – There are an estimated 1 million people who are deaf or hard of hearing in Michigan, and experts say many are not adequately accessing needed care.

Kathleen Mitchell is a deaf mental health specialist and a member of National Association of Social Workers-Michigan. She's among those working to address gaps in services experienced by deaf communities.

Speaking through an interpreter, she says accessibility is a major problem because many social workers are not trained on how to work with deaf people.

"They go in and they get public assistance and there's no deaf-friendly materials, brochures, interpreters,” she points out. “The staff are not aware of the language and the culture differences. "

Mitchell says additionally, interpreters often lack an understanding of mental health, which can result in misdiagnosis, unnecessary hospitalizations, and errors in prescribing medications.

She adds that trust is very important for the deaf community, and a deaf person might not seek help if they are unsure that an interpreter or social worker will understand their needs.

Mitchell says there is a great need for mental health care for people who are deaf, because of the language barriers between the deaf and hearing worlds. She points out there is a high percentage of physical, verbal and emotional abuse among the deaf population.

"Ninety percent of all deaf children have some case of abuse,” she stresses. “Fifty-four percent of deaf boys are victims to sexual abuse compared with 9 percent of hearing boys. "

NASW-Michigan's Deaf, Hard of Hearing, and Deaf-Blind Task Force is working with state leaders to create a state-mandated system of care.

Mitchell says the task force has presented policy recommendations to the Michigan Mental Health and Wellness Commission.

"And inviting the state representatives to join us so that we can share our concerns and issues that we're seeing in the lack of care for deaf people in general," she states.

The task force is working to train interpreters in mental health - and also to train mental health providers about how to best work with the deaf community.


Mary Kuhlman, Public News Service - MI