What Can Hearing Impaired People Do to End Stigmas Against Mental Illness?

  • Have you strained so hard to hear that you collapse from fatigue, too exhausted move anything except your eyelids?
  • Has conversation swirled into a vortex, put you in its eye as you try to understand just one word, and then hit you with its back wall of sound?
  • Have you felt so disconnected from your world and other people that you give up hope of living a happy, productive life?
  • Have you seen people talking to you or about you, and immediately reject you with assertions of “nevermind”?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you can certainly empathize with sufferers of depression. Perhaps, in a greater possibility, you have experienced symptoms that can be found in  depression before discovering your hearing loss. Depression’s  signs, such as difficulty concentrating, fatigue, loss of interest in socializing and favorite activities, can also happen before hearing loss is properly managed. Being able to answer this article’s opening questions reveals your empathy, and why Mental Health Awareness Month (last May in the US) should matter to hearing impaired people.

Photo credit: Elizabeth M

As I mentioned in my previous article, depression-like symptoms can be a manifestation of untreated hearing loss. We bear the stigmas of mental illness if our losses are not understood because hearing loss symptoms can have strong resemblance to those of depression. What may seem like a curse, however, can be transformed into a gift if we understand the power that we wield. Stigmas, while being forced upon us by society, can be ended if we choose to speak out.

In discussing depression-like symptoms of untreated hearing loss, we can communicate that health problems, whether physical or mental, are never a choice. We can dispel the notion that being too exhausted to move is the result of “bad behavior”, or that disconnection from others is unwillingness to communicate. Some of us may suffer from chemical imbalances, as well as the strains that come before a hearing loss diagnosis. Others may know they’re hearing impaired, but fear the diagnoses because of hearing aid costs. Regardless of origin, however, we have the capability of empathizing with mentally ill individuals because of the experiences that come before we understand our hearing loss.

What can come of empathizing with mentally ill individuals? You’d be surprised where a little empathy can lead. Nearly all of my closest friends and boyfriends have suffered with a mental illness or condition of some sort—depression, ADHD, Asperger’s, anxiety. Though our symptoms originate from different places, we help each other if and when our symptoms overlap.

Understanding the feeling of sound swirling into a vortex helps me recognize signs of when friends with anxiety or Asperger’s are overwhelmed by noisy crowds. Friends with ADHD taught me techniques to maintain focus in lectures exceeding an hour, and how to listen—a skill with which I still struggle. Relationships have often begun with bonding over fatigued feelings that people who have not experienced depression or hearing loss cannot easily understand.

Without empathizing with people who are mentally ill, I would have spent many of my high school and college years in a painfully lonely place. With only 17% of hearing impaired individuals  in the US wearing hearing aids, the likelihood that I would find another hearing impaired person my age was low. Reaching out to mentally ill individuals started as a means of overcoming loneliness, but became a way of better understanding of the stigma mental illness carries. The stigma can affect hearing impaired people in the presentation of our symptoms, but it is one that we lose when our health problems are made obvious. Even with medication, mental illness can never entirely subside and the stigma never goes away. I lost it once I got a hearing aid, but the stigma will never leave most of my friends and exes.

Maybe some people can stand back when they watch others be ostracized for pains they understand, but I cannot. After experiencing depression-like symptoms from an undiagnosed hearing loss, I cannot be silent as ill friends are stigmatized. We, as hearing impaired people, have amazing power when we take our experiences and use them to help others and end prejudices of all kinds. Symptoms, regardless of origin, are never choices. Making this statement will help people recognize why stigmatizing mental illness is wrong. Outside of a doctor’s office, symptom origins should never matter in the treatment of other people. If we stand up to this stigma by discussing overlaps in symptoms,we can try to end the stigma on macro and micro levels.

For the latter, we can get involved through government resources, such as mentalhealth.gov. The former can be achieved through something as simple as opening your heart to another person’s experience. Even small actions are a big step in ending the stigma, as well as learning more through contact with others. Regardless of which method you choose, I hope you get involved in promoting mental health awareness, especially if you could say “yes” to the questions that opened this article.

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