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National Deaf Therapy Wants to Make Mental Health Treatment More Accessible

Finding mental health therapy is already hard, but when you add in a disability, trying to find someone who really understands what you’re going through just gets more difficult. For those in the deaf community, there’s another major barrier — hearing therapists rarely know American Sign Language (ASL). One company has a plan, however, to make therapy more accessible to the deaf community.

Friends, licensed therapists and business partners Amanda Sortwell Crane and Megan Erasmus are deaf, and saw a need in the deaf community for better access to mental health services. Not seeing an adequate solution, they launched National Deaf Therapy (NDT) in March 2018, which pairs licensed deaf therapists fluent in American Sign Language (ASL) with deaf and hard-of-hearing clients across the country.

NDT offers online-based individual, family and couples therapy to deaf clients. So far NDT has eight therapists on staff licensed to practice in several states, including Arizona, California, Colorado, Illinois, Maryland, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon and Texas. The company’s online video therapy sessions allow deaf clients to connect with therapists who speak their language and understand what it means to navigate a world designed for hearing people. According to Sortwell Crane, when clients find NDT for the first time, it’s clear the support is needed.

“All different clients that have come to me, their stories are all very similar, and they’re always like, ‘Finally, I found a therapist,’” Sortwell Crane told The Mighty through an interpreter. “And I’m like, ‘How did you manage all of the things that you were doing?’ And, ‘How did you continue with all the challenges that you are having in your life over all of this time period?’ That’s something that really needs to change.”

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According to the National Center for Health Statistics, approximately 20% of the U.S. population is deaf or hard-of-hearing. However, studies suggest 80 to 90% of those in the deaf community with mental illness don’t have access to mental health services, compared to about 64% of the general population. The American Psychological Association (APA) highlighted those in the deaf community have a higher risk of experiencing depression or anxiety, despite myths that deaf people don’t experience mental illness.

Like the wider disability community, many medical and mental health professionals are not equipped or trained to work with the deaf community. According to the APA, many mental health treatment providers don’t provide qualified interpreters, despite a mandate to do so from the Americans with Disabilities Act. Mental health professionals who are not part of the deaf community will also likely miss cultural and language differences as well as minimize barriers the deaf community faces to get adequate care.

“The deaf community, in general, encounter so many systemic barriers, barriers to education, employment, or other opportunities to participate in the community,” Christopher Soukup, CEO of Communication Service for the Deaf (CSD), told The Mighty. “Access to mental health supports the health of individuals, supports the health of families and supports the health of our community. We work to overcome other challenges and barriers to education, to employment, to other opportunities [as] really an integral part of accomplishing the kind of change we want to see.”

One barrier for those in the deaf community is insurance — Sortwell Crane said Medicare doesn’t pay for virtual mental health services. For many in the deaf community who rely on Medicare, this makes treatment unaffordable. Soukup highlighted people in the deaf community are unemployed and underemployed at higher rates than the hearing population. Employment is a major way people gain access to private health insurance plans that would cover therapy.

There’s another unique challenge in trying to find a deaf therapist or one proficient in ASL, and it’s one that’s often overlooked. The deaf community is small — you may know just about every deaf person within driving distance of where you live. Even if there is a deaf therapist in your community, you may already know their family, some of their personal life and run into them at social functions. That’s not ideal for therapy. NDT’s model of online therapy can connect you with a licensed therapist in your state who is outside of your community.

NDT not only provides a valuable service for deaf clients, they also play an important role in supporting deaf therapists, who are in short supply nationwide. Though more recent statistics are hard to find, as of 1990, there were only 20 deaf psychologists licensed in the United States. Sortwell Crane said there are not enough opportunities for deaf therapists.

“The opportunities for therapists to earn hours and to work as a therapist before they even get licensed is very difficult,” Sortwell Crane said, adding:

We lose a lot of good therapists because they haven’t been able to get to the point of learning what they’re going to do in order to become licensed to take the exam. And so many people stop before they get there and they find other jobs. We want to stop that. … That’s what we’re providing our online platform for, is that flexibility so they can earn their hours toward licensure.

Because NDT also provides deaf therapists with opportunities to practice in the mental health field that largely aren’t available, NDT became the fourth business partner with the CSD Social Venture Fund. The CSD Social Venture Fund supports deaf-owned businesses that make a positive impact on the deaf community. CSD Chief Innovation Officer Dominic Lacy explained why the Social Venture Fund invested in NDT.

“It’s not just providing an economic investment to a business, but it’s also making sure that that economic investment is tied to … opportunities for jobs,” Lacy told The Mighty through an interpreter. “It addresses a gap. And so this company is providing something that isn’t already there.” He added, “Then of course, CSD cares a lot about just mental health in general.”

Sortwell Crane said she plans to continue to grow NDT and find new ways to provide mental health services to clients. And, to better serve the estimated 5 million people in the deaf community in need of mental health services each year, NDT’s mission also requires providing more opportunities for deaf therapists.

We want to be able to serve all 50 states and be able to do outreach to all different therapists to say that, ‘Look, there’s a career here for deaf people in the mental health field,’” Sortwell Crane said. “What NDT is doing is not just creating opportunities for therapy and … for the deaf community who are looking for mental health services, but it’s creating opportunities for future therapists.”

Header image via National Deaf Therapy’s Facebook/Lindsey Gale Photography

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