Hearing Loss: A Threat to Mental Health

By Jess Pettey

Editor: Mr. Pettey has been an active advocate for hearing loss since he lost his hearing a few years ago. He speaks to groups about coping with hearing loss, writes articles, and coordinates hearing loss workshops. His hearing loss was a result of flying combat missions as a pilot of a B-24 during WWII, genetics, and hearing damage from participating in loud musical groups. He wrote and published a book about his WWII experiences entitled, ONE MORE MISSION. Mr. Pettey taught music, and has played in music groups until his hearing forced him to discontinue his music activities. He has lived in Italy and Germany, been an avid traveler, and is an active member of the Hearing Loss Association of America, and a volunteer for the Cochlear Awareness Network.

July 2010

A slight, moderate, or even an acute hearing loss enhanced by properly fitted hearing aids might delay a threat to mental health for many years but when an adult experiences a profound or total hearing loss, it often leads to despair and grief. Although taken for granted, we discover upon losing our hearing that it is indeed something we cherish dearly and its loss may cause despair and even a denial that a solution exists. Many give up hope at this stage, but for the few who are determined to seek a solution with a cochlear implant, anger and depression often follow if expectations are too high for a quick solution.

From personal experience, research, and observation, it is apparent that a profound or total hearing loss can and often does pose a serious threat to mental health. The threat lies not only from the loss of hearing alone, but also from the lack of understanding and failure to adjust to a series of emotional conflicts that one inevitably encounters when contemplating the irretrievable loss of something one cherishes and values. Certainly our ability to understand conversation and to converse with others is one of our most precious possessions. The emotional distress we encounter after the loss of this valued asset is nature’s unique process of allowing us time to adjust and to heal. A loss that causes bereavement is usually accepted as the loss of a loved one but it may also include the loss of health, eyesight, a limb, a pet, the loss of a job, of hearing, a divorce, or even a financial loss.

The emotional stages confronted by many of us with this type of loss is commonly referred to as the “Grief Process” in Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s book, “On Death and Dying.” She identified the steps or stages of the Grief Process as:
1. Denial, shock (“That cannot be true, I do not believe it”)
2. Bargaining (“Please give me more time”)
3. Anger (“Why me”?)
4. Depression (“There is no hope, there is no solution”.)
5. And finally Acceptance (“There is hope and I will accept my fate”)

There is a point of view that the grief process should include two other steps: pain and guilt but many experience these two stages during the anger and depression stages. I personally experienced four of the five steps of the Kubler-Ross process and skipped the Bargaining step. This leads to the conclusion that each individual is unique and varies in the order and time needed to successfully work through the various stages of the grieving process. For example, one may experience the Anger and Bargaining stages before the Denial stage, or one may skip a stage entirely; however, it seems that all agree that the Acceptance stage is a vital and necessary step to achieving good mental health. Unfortunately we have all observed some individuals who remain permanently trapped in one of the stages much to the anguish of their family and friends. So long as one remains in any stage, other than the Acceptance stage, he/she will seldom work through the other steps of the process. Often when one is in the denial stage and the family persuades him/her to purchase hearing aids, the hearing aids are placed in a drawer and seldom or never worn.

Hearing loss is also a family loss. It affects each member of the family differently and as a consequence, each member of the family may experience the grieving process in a diverse order. For instance, the family member with the hearing loss may be depressed while at the same time their spouse may be angry because he/she is not seeking a solution. A daughter may be in denial and refuse to discuss the subject at all. Hearing loss disrupts communication within a family that often causes tension and misunderstanding between family members. I once became acquainted with a hard of hearing person who informed me that his daughter refused to talk to him. She would only converse with her mother in his presence because she said that he often asked her to repeat something she had said and she did not like to repeat herself.

Fortunately the grieving process has a beginning and an end. It is only a process that leads to better mental health when each grieving stage is allowed to develop and dealt with. When they are denied, resisted, or ignored the process is halted and good mental health is delayed. Also permanent anger or depression may lead to isolation and anti-social behavior, such as alcohol and drug abuse.

On the other hand, there is good news: when one suffers and grieves over a hearing loss; when one loses all hope; when one travels the lowest road to despair and depression; when one suffers through the stages of the grieving process and finally accepts their hearing loss and is willing to receive help, the downward road begins to change, leading upward to the light at the end of the tunnel of hopelessness. Only then, with acceptance and help, may one leave the tunnel and return to good mental health.