THE BLOG

'I Went To My Local Alcohol Team But They Told Me they Don't Work With Deaf People'

11/04/2017 13:19

The sad fact is that if you have a disability you are more likely to experience mental health issues, especially depression or anxiety. Around one in three people with chronic physical impairment experience a mental health problem, compared to one in four in the wider population. Deaf people are twice as likely to suffer from depression as hearing people, and around 40 per cent of people who lose their sight develop depression.

Yet it is still too hard for disabled people and Deaf people to access high quality mental health support.

The London Assembly Health committee, which I Chair, has been collecting evidence on the mental health experiences of disabled and Deaf Londoners. What we found highlights the difficulties the disabled and Deaf communities still face on a day to day basis accessing healthcare in London.

In my GP surgery and others across the country we have leaflets and posters showing who you can contact for mental health support, but what if you are blind? What if you can't phone to get a doctor's appointment? We might put information on our website, but disabled people and Deaf people are disproportionately locked out of the internet - and one in four disabled people have never used the internet.

If you do manage to find out about mental health support services often they are simply not geared towards disabilities. The Health Committee heard of places in London where there used to be dedicated support workers for disabled people and Deaf people, but now there are only general support workers. We cannot allow this specialism to die out.

We know that being disabled often brings stigma and discrimination. Discrimination is damaging to mental health. Over half of disabled people say they have experienced hostility, aggression or violence from a stranger because of their disability. I was shocked to hear stories such as that of the local alcohol team not taking Deaf patients. We simply can't allow our own services to perpetuate stigma. We should be shining examples of acceptance and understanding.

Eight out of 10 people with a physical impairment were not born with it. And we know that diagnosis can be a traumatic event, changing people's lives forever. But 92 per cent of people receive no emotional support at all at diagnosis. We need to change this. We need physical health services to be more aware of the psychological impact losing mobility, sight or hearing might have and guide patients to early support before mental health problems develop further.

Of course mental health isn't just to do with being disabled.

MIND told our Health Committee that too often mental health services focus on the impairment as the main cause. Mental health includes race, gender, sexuality, social circumstances, economic circumstances and many other factors. I urge those working in mental health to better reflect the diversity of factors that contribute to mental health experience.

But there are some great services right here in London that we can learn from. We recently visited the national deaf mental health services at Springfield University Hospital in Tooting. Talking to service users and staff there it was clear that there are some easy, practical solutions that could make a huge amount of difference to disabled people and Deaf people using mental health services. Simple changes, like: allowing people to text, rather than phone, for appointments, making sure that there is step-free access to facilities and training frontline staff in disability and Deaf awareness.

We know that disabled people and Deaf people find it harder to find meaningful employment, appropriate housing or accessible transport. These are the tenets of a healthy mental life.

The Mayor of London has powers over housing and transport and great influence over employment conditions. We need to ensure that mental health services are fit for all disabled people and Deaf people - services to meet their needs and allow this generation to lead positive lives.

Most important of all we need to listen to what the disabled and Deaf are telling us themselves. Real improvements can only come from listening to and respecting those living with disability and living with mental health problems - those who have experienced the service and know what has worked well and what hasn't.

The challenge is substantial and deeply ingrained in our society. There is no quick fix. But the Mayor can do something, we all can, and we should.

Dr Onkar Sahota AM is Chair of the London Assembly Health Committee. Find the Health Committee report on 'Mental health - Disabled people and Deaf people' here.

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