Occupational Health & Safety

Journal Explores Mental Health Burden of Deafness

Poor communication persists between deaf people and mental health professionals, according to a review and an editorial published by the influential medical journal The Lancet.

The Lancet focused in its latest issue on the mental health of deaf people in Britain, with a review, commentary, and related editorial describing the communication barriers they face when encountering professionals in mental health services. A 2004 survey showed that one-third of British Sign Language users avoided visiting their general practitioner because of communication problems, and this problem persists in the mental health arena, as well, according to the highly respected British medical journal.

"Because of communication problems, deaf people face barriers to health care before they even reach the consultation room," the editorial states. "Care pathways are not always joined up: for example, it is difficult in many parts of the UK for deaf patients to access the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies programme or counselling services via primary care. Then there is the matter of arranging an appointment. Without adequate provision of email and text software, deaf patients must spend a great deal of time and effort going to the clinic to book in person. Even when the patient has arrived for the appointment and is sitting in the waiting room, something as simple as indicating when the clinician is free may not be done effectively by reception staff. During the consultation, the difficulties multiply. As Andrew Alexander and colleagues state in their Comment, lip-reading is not reliable, writing notes is inadequate, and British Sign Language interpreters are scarce."

Saying technology including webcams and online interpreting may help, it urges clinicians first and foremost to allow sufficient time for the consultation, adding that a deaf clinical network of the type proposed by SignHealth, an advocacy group trying to improve the health of deaf people, also may help deaf patients overcome poor communication caused by fragmented health services. SignHealth's chief executive, Steve Powell, is a co-author of the commentary published by the journal.

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