$1.5 Million Grant to Improve Mental Health Treatment for Deaf People

Multiple Projects Will Benefit Minority Groups and Those with Language Barriers

May 29, 2003

The Deaf Wellness Center, part of the University of Rochester Medical Center’s Department of Psychiatry, has been awarded its largest grant ever--a five-year, $1.5 million grant to fund a host of research projects. All of the projects will help deaf people receive better mental health treatment--a crucial need within the deaf community.

The grant comes from the U.S. Department of Education's National Institute for Disability and Rehabilitation Research. Partly it's in recognition that 40,000 deaf Americans suffer from serious psychopathology while only two percent in need of mental health services actually receive them.

The research projects will cover three main themes: mental health interpreting, a new form of psychotherapy, and psychological testing. They'll target minority groups and those with language barriers in the deaf population. Most of the proposed studies are multi-site, collaborative ventures that will test how to provide better and more accessible mental health services for these groups.

A training project, based on an approach that the Deaf Wellness Center pioneered, will help sign-language interpreters get better at translating meaning instead of just words. Phrases in spoken English can have little relation to their literal translation into sign language, which raises the danger of miscommunication in vital exchanges between doctor and patient. Interpreters in San Francisco, Minneapolis and New York City will be trained under the Center's new methods to emphasize the meaning behind words and the context in which they're spoken. Assessments by interpreters and consumers will determine how translation improves.

The second set of projects will adapt a popular new form of psychotherapy to treat deaf people. Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is an educational approach to help patients with severe emotional problems. It combines group therapy with workbook assignments to teach patients to better understand and regulate their emotions and behavior. But to use the approach with deaf people, materials must be modified to make sense to those who communicate in sign language and may have limited English reading ability.  Workbook examples that reflect a deaf person's unique life experience also must be included. The Deaf Wellness Center will develop and test these new materials and therapy methods with several deaf populations, including those with limited sign language ability and those with substance abuse problems.

The other projects funded by the grant will focus on psychological testing. Currently there are few reliable tests for deaf people with psychological problems, since translations of conventional tests are often biased when applied to deaf individuals, says Dr. Robert Pollard, director of the Deaf Wellness Center. For example, one of the first signs of Alzheimer's disease is language memory problems. A test for people who use sign language would look very different from a test for people who speak English. So one project will produce language memory tests specifically designed for deaf people. Another will create a scale to detect and measure psychosis in deaf individuals.  Pollard's group will work with other experts to determine how psychosis symptoms differ in deaf and hearing people.

Pollard also will write a casebook from his many years of psychological testing of deaf people, as a resource for others in the field.

The overall point of the projects boils down to equity, says Pollard.

"We're saying, 'Let's try to make existing mental health services as useful for deaf people as for hearing people," says Pollard.

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