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Deaf women call on government to treat them equally when accessing mental health services

Two women from St Andrew’s Healthcare in Northampton are on a mission to try and get the same level of access to Deaf mental health support as Deaf men. Sammy and Cassie*, are both profoundly Deaf and also suffer from complex mental health conditions, which require specialist care. They have struggled for most of their lives to get equitable access to Deaf support which suits their needs.

Currently across the UK if you are a Deaf female and in need of secure inpatient mental health support the only option available is to you is care on a ward with hearing people. This hinders a patient’s recovery due to the significant barriers to communication and the lack of focus on the mental health condition itself.

"Before I arrived at St Andrew’s I was in psychiatric wards where staff struggled to communicate with me. This just made me feel even more stressed and frightened” Sammy said.

"It was so hard for me to develop any sort of relationship with hearing people on the ward, because I just couldn’t communicate with them. They couldn’t understand British Sign Language and I couldn’t hear what they were saying. It made me feel like I wanted to end my life.”

Deaf males on the other hand receive specialist Deaf secure mental health services right through the system, from high secure at Rampton psychiatric hospital, to medium and low secure.  These specialist secure Deaf services are able to speed up a person’s recovery, by allowing a Deaf person to access care provided in their own language; allowing them to understand their diagnosis, whilst feeling part of a community.

Fairbairn Ward at St Andrew’s Healthcare in Northampton, is a 17-bed ward which cares for men who are profoundly Deaf or hearing impaired. 50% of the nursing staff are Deaf themselves and all staff and patients are trained in British Sign Language (BSL) ensuring greater engagement and participation in therapy.  

Sammy is now pushing for the same service for women nationally. She’s been at St Andrew’s for 18 months, she has interpreters with her all day and a consultant psychiatrist who specialises in Deaf mental health, but she says this doesn’t go far enough to meet her needs.

"I am asking the Government and NHS England to fund a ward for Deaf women. We need equality, we need things to be 50/50 for Deaf men and women.”

Cassie is another patient at St Andrew’s who is also pushing for the change. She’s been in services for more than 20 years and says the lack of Deaf support for women is hindering her recovery.

"I’d be discharged much quicker [if there was a women’s Deaf service] because the focus would be entirely on my mental health, rather than struggling with communication all the time.

"I just want to be in my own flat with proper support. Men have the support, but women don’t. It’s not fair. We need equality.”

According to leading Deaf health charity SignHealth, up to 50% of the Deaf community in the UK suffer from mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety and low-self-esteem. Part of this is down to the lack of mental health support available to Deaf people and the communication barriers they face in accessing services, which as a consequence, leads to poorer mental and physical health than the rest of the population.

In addition research shows that Deaf inpatients are likely to remain in psychiatric hospitals twice as long as their hearing peers. The studies show that this is not solely down to their mental health conditions, but rather a lack of community provision can negatively impact a Deaf person’s length of stay.

Dr Alexander Hamilton, a Consultant Psychiatrist for Deaf people at St Andrew’s said:

"The difficulties Deaf people face when seeking mental health help are often woefully misunderstood and it can often be very difficult to even get a Deaf person to have consistent access to a British Sign Language (BSL) interpreter, let alone the expertise of specialist clinicians skilled in working with Deaf people with mental health problems.

"Under the Equality Act Deaf people are included as having ‘protected characteristics’, and everyone who uses mental health services should have equitable access, but for women like Sammy and Cassie this is clearly not the case.

"We have to get this changed. It cannot be fair that Deaf women do not get the same level of mental health care as other people. . There are other Sammys and Cassies across the country struggling to get the help they need and deserve. We all have a duty to help them.”

Sammy and Cassie say that they won’t rest until they get equality.

Please help them in their campaign, by sharing this story with your friends and colleagues, and using the hashtag on social #SammysCampaign.

*Name changed to protect identity.