Mental Health and Deafblindness

One in five Canadians will experience a mental health problem in their lifetime.   Indirectly therefore, mental health affects all of us.  Gender, age, family history, genetics, stress, loss and trauma, including deafblindness, are all contributing factors to mental health.  

Given these facts, it is highly likely that during your career as an intervenor you will support someone who is deafblind that also has a mental health problem.  This could be as an intervenor for a medical or psychiatric appointment, following a behaviour support plan, providing options for support, having coffee together, or walking.

Having had many conversations over tea at Tim Horton’s, there were times I felt, “what should I say or not say, I’m not a counsellor”.   Fortunately, I had the opportunity to take Mental Health First Aid, a 2 day course similar to First Aid but for mental health, through the Mental Health Commission of Canada.   It gave me valuable skills and the confidence to support many different people in my life with mental health problems.   It’s not, nor is there, a magic pill to make things all better.  And some pills do help, some cause side effects, and some will need adjusting.   It is not an exact science.   Treatment plans often include, but aren’t limited to, conventional medicine.    

Years ago, I was at an appointment with a consumer who hoped the doctor would prescribe a new regime of pills.  Instead, the doctor prescribed connecting with family through letters, and going for a daily walk.  

I’ve told this story many times, but I’ll tell it again.  One consumer thanked me for intervening during a complicated appointment.   I responded by saying “no problem, it was nice to feel needed”.   They stopped in their tracks and kindly reminded me that going for walk together, something they could no longer do on their own, was just as or even more important.   They acknowledged that walking was part of their own personal self-care plan.

A presenter at a past symposium told a story about supervising a shift with a consumer who went to work in an office with an intervenor.  As they entered the office, the receptionist and intervenor exchanged morning pleasantries while the consumer was guided through without engaging with anyone.  He told another story of how an intervenor guided a consumer to a table in a local coffee shop and proceeded alone to buy coffee and therefore to socially engage with the barista.  Caffeine itself and having a job both have many intrinsic benefits, but it`s the social connections you make while doing them that feed the soul and make someone feel part of their greater community.   It’s part of the intervenor’s role to facilitate these interactions.  

Whether prescribed by a doctor, part of someone’s regular routine, or something they are trying for the first time, I would hope as intervenors we don’t negate the importance of, and our role in maintaining, sustaining and initiating exercise or social connections and its subsequent impact on mental health.

Thanks to the various social groups in the community: DBAT, CNSDB, and Deaf-Blind Adventurers, as well as on-line resources, there are many options for individuals who are deafblind to connect with others.   There is still work to be done to ensure professionals understand the role of the intervenor and the specific and individual needs of someone who is deafblind.   Gradually there are more resources available such as counsellors who are deaf or deafblind, and help lines that allow for alternate communication methods such as texting.   I may be biased, because I am also an instructor, but I highly recommend that Mental Health First Aid be mandated for all employers similar to First Aid.   I would bet that you are more likely to support a colleague or consumer through a mental health problem or crisis than treat a broken arm.    As an intervenor having skills and knowledge related to mental health, adds to the behavioural and technical skills you already need and use every day.

Renée Toninger
Renée has been working in the field of deafblindness for over 23 years.  She has worked in both the congenital and acquired fields.  After many years as an intervenor and Community Services Coordinator with CHKC, she now holds the position of Intervenor Services Manager for the organization. Renée has a Specialized Honours Degree in Psychology with advanced mental health training and experience.  She is a Mental Health First Aid Instructor.