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Deaf Individuals Face Challenges in Accessing Mental Health Services, Part 2

Providing family therapy for families impacted by hearing loss is challenging. Ideally, counselors would know sign language and understand deaf culture. But in all of Southwest Missouri, there are only two licensed professional counselors who sign. In the final part of our series on mental health, KSMU's Missy Shelton looks at the difficulties of providing counseling for families that include someone who is deaf.

Shelton: Think about this: 90 percent of deaf children in Missouri have hearing parents. Ninety-five percent of those parents don't know sign language. It begs the are those parents communicating with their children? Marcia Brewer is a licensed professional counselor at Burrell Behavioral Health in Springfield. She works with deaf clients, including hearing parents and their deaf children.

Brewer: "Often parents think they sign. They come and they'll go, 'He knows. He knows what I'm talking about. He understands me.' And I'll watch them interact and I'll notice that the interaction is very subtle, very surface. And I'll say, 'How do you explain to him not to talk to a stranger? How do you tell him the reason why he needs to eat his broccoli? How do you explain the importance of taking a bath or the importance of sharing or saying you're sorry?' 'I don't know.' And they'll stop and start to wonder and then they'll say, 'We, I don't know. Do I have to take a class or what?' It's a very challenging and a very sensitive thing for a parent because the parents are good parents and they want to love and communicate with their children. And the thought of learning a whole new language is extremely overwhelming."

Shelton: Brewer says the lack of communication leads to other problems. She says parents who don't communicate with their deaf child on a deeper level often don't know how to manage their child.

Brewer: "When a parent can't communicate at that level, then they will often use physical control and that's another problem we have. Instead of saying, 'Put that back and ask for permission first. Remember your manners, please,' they will grab someone's arm or spank their little hand or something physical or pick them up and move them. And I'll say, 'Could you ask him to please stop and let him learn self-control?'"

Shelton: The problems that arise from a lack of communication are all too familiar to Tracy. Growing up, she had some hearing and that allowed her to communicate with her mother, who knew only a little sign language. Tracy says her mother tried to learn to sign but found it too overwhelming. Tracy spent much of her youth living at the state's deaf school, away from her parents. And even when she saw her family, Tracy says her parents didn't know how to communicate with her. Molly Voris interprets for Tracy.

Tracy: "Communication was really an issue. We weren't able to be really close because of that. It was kind of awkward. I had to learn a lot of things through my friends at the deaf school. That really was my home, there."

Shelton: Tracy says growing up in a dormitory rather than in a home with two parents made it hard for her to know how to parent. She has a 13 year old with mild hearing loss, an eight year old who is deaf and a 4 year old who hears. Tracy receives counseling from Marcia Brewer and other mental health services for her family through Burrell. Tracy says parenting her deaf child presents the most challenges. Molly Voris interprets for Tracy.

Tracy: "You can't just yell to call their name. You stomp on the ground and sometimes if she's mad at me and doesn't want to listen to me, she'll cover up her eyes and I can't communicate with her. I have to tap her and say, 'Look at me. Listen to me.' Sometimes, she'll just decide to look away and then it's not like she can hear me. So, I just have to wait and then approach her again and say, 'Do you want to talk?' And she'll cross her arms and kind of be mad so that's an issue. That's tough."

Shelton: Through counseling, Tracy has learned how to communicate effectively with all her children. Tracy has worked with DeLinda Belanger, who is deaf herself and works as the Care Coordinator for deaf services at Burrell. Tracy says Belanger taught her how to use time-out effectively with her children. Molly Voris interprets for Tracy.

Tracy: "I'd put them in time out and when time out was finished, I'd say, 'Ok. Time out's over. Go play.' Something's wrong there. DeLinda showed me that after time out, then you ask the child, 'Now what do you think you did wrong?' Give them some time to think about it. And then talk to them about it, why they were put in time out. Ok, next time we're going to do better."

Shelton: Tracy says she doesn't want her children to experience the isolation she felt around her family growing up.

Tracy: "Like at the Thanksgiving holiday, the whole family is there and I was always left out because I couldn't join the conversation. One person's talking and then a person across the table would talk and I'm look back and forth 'Who's talking? Wait! Who's talking?' Trying to follow that, I was lost. So I'd just kind of sit out and twiddle my thumbs and ask my mom, 'Are you ready to go home? Can we go home?'"

Shelton: Not only does Tracy have the challenge of parenting a partially deaf child and a child who is completely deaf...She also has the challenge raising a child who hears. Counselors say that the parent-child relationship becomes especially complicated when deaf parents rely on a hearing child to be their gateway to the hearing world. That's one of the many topics Tracy can discuss in her own language with counselors who sign.