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Deaf Children and Mental Health – The challenges and how Deaf Child Worldwide are tackling them.

October 27, 2022

Deaf children and mental health – The challenges and how we’re tackling them 

Joanna Clark is an international development expert who specializes in children’s health and education. Joanna has been the Director of Deaf Child Worldwide since 2013.

By Joanna Clark, Director, Deaf Child Worldwide 


In the wake of World Mental Health Day, I’d like to talk about a project we’ve started with our partners in South Asia, to provide better emotional wellbeing support to deaf children and young people. 


It’s well documented that the challenges that deaf people face place them at a significantly high risk of experiencing mental health problems. Research in the UK has shown deaf adults to be twice as likely to be affected by mental health problems as their hearing peers.*  

Now consider the situation in South Asia. In the impoverished rural areas where Deaf Child Worldwide operates, mental health services – let alone specific support for deaf children and young people – are practically non-existent. 


Our project there came about as a result of observations made by our partner organisations. They noticed that the deaf children and young people with whom they worked often seemed to exhibit emotional problems, manifested by extremes of behaviour, ranging from withdrawal and isolation on the one hand, to aggressive acting out on the other. 


Barriers to language and communication 

Together with our partners, we’ve identified several reasons why the deaf children and young people we work with are sometimes experiencing emotional challenges, which adversely affect their self-esteem and confidence. 


These challenges stem from the language and communication barriers that deaf children in these communities can face. Late diagnosis and a lack of access to hearing technology means these deaf children often have significant language delays. And because they don’t get the support they need, their families, schools and communities struggle to communicate with them.  


There are a number of factors which have the potential to pitch deaf children into mental health problems: 


  • They face daily struggles to be understood, even by their own family. This can understandably result in feelings of isolation, loneliness and frustration. 
  • Often a deaf child is the only deaf person in their family or even their whole community, so there’s no-one to share their feelings with. 
  • Deaf children are sometimes bullied or experience stigma, discrimination or inequality because of their deafness. 
  • In stressful situations. such as during the COVID-19 pandemic, many deaf children were left anxious because no-one adequately explained the situation to them. 


The workers on the frontline 

In South Asia, our partners employ Deaf Role Models (DRMs), deaf adults who support deaf children to develop language and communication skills and build literacy. This can include giving sign language lessons, making schoolwork more accessible and keeping them informed about wider issues in the community (such as COVID-19 restrictions), which may not have been adequately explained to them.  


Deaf children frequently confide in the DRMs and express feelings of anger, frustration and withdrawal. In situations such as these, deaf children may develop more serious mental health issues if their concerns are not addressed at an early stage. But intervention requires a level of knowledge which DRMs currently don’t possess. More support is needed. 


Early intervention is key 


This is why Deaf Child Worldwide has been working with Basic Needs India (BNI) since the end of 2021 to train DRMs in mental health awareness.  


The training takes a process-oriented approach and begins by addressing DRMs’ own inner strengths, thus triggering their self-confidence. It then explores the emotional and psychosocial development of children and young people. The DRMs also learn about how families and society influence human behaviour, and how to help deaf children and their families understand each other better.  


Thanks to this ongoing work with BNI, DRMs will soon be able to provide a basic level of emotional wellbeing support to deaf children and recognise what symptoms are severe enough to be referred to professional mental health services. The training is continuing through 2022 and we’ll be assessing the outcomes periodically with BNI. 


An emotional safety net 


The training will enable DRMs to better understand the emotional needs of the deaf children they work with, who in turn have the safety net of an individual they can communicate their feelings to.  


As part of our deaf awareness sessions with families, we explain the frustrations of deaf children, many of which are linked to communication. This gives them an insight into why their child might be acting out. It’s also discussed in parents’ groups, where the more experienced parents counsel others. The plan is to extend this into training for a group of hearing individuals, either staff or parents, to become ‘Lay Counsellors’. For now, by training the DRMs to support the mental health of deaf children, we’re hoping the children will feel more secure, with parents who understand their emotions better.   


Wider still, it is hoped that the project will result in a greater sensitivity and understanding on the part of whole communities of the emotional challenges that deaf children face. 


An unrealisable dream? 


Accessible and robust mental health services for the deaf children and young people in the far corners of the countries where we work may yet be an unrealisable dream, but our intention is to provide at least a basic level of mental health support. To that end, DCW, together with BNI, are developing a community-based approach that can provide basic support to deaf children, young people and their families.  


*Department of Health and National Institute of Mental Health: Mental Health and Deafness –Towards Equity and Access: Best Practice Guidance (2005) 

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