According to the World Health Organisation (WHO, 2017), hearing loss affects 430 million people worldwide. It is also estimated that by 2050, nearly 2.5 billion people will have some degree of hearing impairment and at least 700 million will have disabling hearing loss requiring treatment. While the experience of hearing loss is different for everyone, there are a number of potential psychological effects that need to be considered.
1. Anger and denial
Hearing loss can lead to significant changes to the person’s daily life. The hearing-impaired person may not know how to tell others to change their patterns of communication so that they can understand what is being said, or how to navigate interactions to improve understanding. As a result, the additional work required in trying to understand what others are saying is likely to leave the person feeling fatigued, discouraged, irritable, and angry. Because hearing loss is a change that is difficult to adjust to, it is also common for people to be in denial about it.
2. Anxiety and depression
When people struggle to hear and communication becomes challenging, they may feel anxious and embarrassed being in situations where it is difficult to hear. They may also fear being stigmatised and judged and worry that their hearing impairment could cause them to feel misunderstood and negatively affect the outcome of a conversation. As a result, they may end up avoiding going out or meeting with family, friends, and the general public. These circumstances may set the person off on a path of social disconnection and isolation, which can lead them to feel like they have lost a part of their identity, subsequently heightening feelings of disappointment, sadness, shame, and hopelessness. In such circumstances, the person may become increasingly vulnerable to developing more serious mental health challenges such as depression, which is characterised by persistent sadness, fatigue, sleep difficulties, loss of pleasure or interest in previously rewarding or enjoyable activities, as well as thoughts of being a burden and suicide.
3. Impact on family members
The psychological effects of hearing loss described above are not just limited to the person experiencing the loss. It can become a significant burden for family members involved in the person’s life as well. In fact, there is evidence suggesting that family members very often experience many of the same challenges as the person with the hearing loss. For instance, if the person with the hearing loss constantly misunderstands or needs information to be repeated, conversations can result in more frustration, potentially escalating into arguments and further miscommunication. As a result, family members may begin to avoid conversations to prevent stress and arguments, which may, however, contribute to increased emotional distance and dissatisfaction within their relationship.
Despite being invisible, hearing loss is a common disability worldwide. If untreated, it can have major consequences on the psychological health of the person with the hearing loss, as well as their loved ones. It is, therefore, crucial that hearing loss is not ignored and appropriate specialist help is sought as soon as possible. Accessing psychological support can also be a very important step in helping the person manage the emotional impact of their hearing loss, and preventing it from negatively affecting them, their relationships, and their quality of life.
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Dr. Ronald Zammit holds a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology from the University of Southampton, has completed Master’s level psychotherapy training in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy at the New Buckinghamshire University in the UK, as well as received training in Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT). He has a special interest in mood and anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder and other trauma-related difficulties, personality disorders, and compassion-based approaches to treating difficulties related to high self-criticism and shame.
World Health Organization (2021). Deafness and hearing loss. Retrieved from: https://www.who.int/en/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/deafness-and-hearing-loss