Mental Health and Hearing Loss

Chaos inside
Photo credit: Hartwig HKD

How does the stigma of mental illness affect hearing impaired people? Mental health problems, as well as being their own illness, can be a symptom of physical ailments. According to the Speech-Language-Hearing Association of America, untreated hearing loss is connected to depression and anxiety.

In a study out of 4000 subjects, the rates of depression were higher among individuals with untreated hearing loss. Typical symptoms of depression include an inability to focus; fatigue and excessive sleeping; feelings of sadness or emptiness; an inability to enjoy once beloved activities; feelings of hopelessness, and a desire to commit suicide. These symptoms can also be a sign of an undiagnosed hearing loss.

I speak from experience when talking about these symptoms, and the damage they can cause. The year between my last tympanoplasty and the diagnosis of permanent hearing loss was characterized by depression. Focus on my high school classes, especially math and science, was a lost cause. If I wasn’t dozing as the teacher faced the blackboard, I was leaving class exhausted, with strain-induced headaches that made me throw up and collapse.

Though I spent my weekdays in theatre and choir practices, I spent my time offstage sitting in corners, giving up hopes of conversation. Weekends, instead of being spent out with large groups of friends, were spent in bed, trying to understand why I felt so trapped in my own body. During my lowest moments, I romanticized suicide as an escape from a prison-like body, and a last hope from a disability that I did not understand.

In that year, I found myself experiencing the stigmas placed on mentally ill individuals. Hearing obtained through restorative surgeries, attending private school, and participation in music and theatre made me present as a well-hearing person. No one knew about my disability because I did not wear hearing aids, and I had clear diction from theatrical training. It was not until I was open about my diagnosis that comments like, “retarded”, “lazy”, and “stupid” began to slow down. Some people, even after I was diagnosed and fitted for a hearing aid, still call me “stupid” and “retarded.” Others said, “You’re just making excuses because you can’t admit how stupid you are” or “Not everybody is smart in every way.  You shouldn’t hide behind your hearing loss.”

Stigma against mental illness is relevant to the hearing impaired community because of how few people who could benefit from hearing aids have and use them. According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, 36 million individuals in the U.S. are hearing impaired, but only 17% have hearing aids. The majority of adults continue living with symptoms of depression, even though their depression may not be caused by chemical imbalances alone.  Millions of us are suffering in literal silence, between hearing aid costs and the initial presentations of hearing loss. Mental Health Awareness Month applies to hearing impaired individuals without a diagnosis because their disabilities  can be a factor in mental illness. Regardless of stigmas, however, the most important part of mental health awareness helping people who may be trapped in silence.

What are you waiting for? Today is the day to tell your story with loved ones and strangers to end the stigma. Whether you help someone find a home in hearing loss associations, or inspire someone to get hearing aids, either change will bring undiagnosed people out of depression’s silence. Depression has a strong chemical component, but sometimes, all it needs to be activated is stress. Isolation and strain from hearing loss can be more than enough to push someone into a depressive episode.

With this possibility in mind, it is critical to discuss mental health awareness in the Deaf and Hard of Hearing communities. Caring for physical and mental health ensures that we can live fulfilling lives, and accomplish our goals. Twofold, we are freed of health-based inhibitions when we discuss why mental health awareness is important for Hard of Hearing individuals.

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