Some stories change lives forever. At the time, Lindsay Koncz was majoring in Deaf Studies at Towson University, near Baltimore, Maryland, when a Deaf man visited her class. The man shared what it was like to lose his best friend to AIDS in the 1980s and face the many emotions of grief on his own, without help and guidance from a mental health professional who could speak his language. The man had despaired to such a degree that at one point he thought his only solution was to contract AIDS (which he did) and go and join his best friend in heaven.
“As he was sharing his story, his emotion and expressions particularly struck me,” Koncz recalled, in an interview with FHE Health. “He seemed exceptionally defeated by this lack of access to mental health care.”
The man’s heartbreaking account reinforced Koncz’ growing conviction that “taking care of mental and emotional health is crucial” and that “nobody should be denied or have the inability to access mental health care.” From that day on, Koncz knew she wanted to serve the Deaf Community as a licensed mental health counselor and “be part of bridging the gap between the Deaf Community and equal access to mental health treatment.” She explained that while members of the Deaf Community experience the same mental health issues that affect the larger U.S. population, they face the additional barrier of language and communication. For example, if a Deaf person wishes to receive therapy, they typically must rely on an ASL interpreter to translate what they and the therapist are saying about a very intimate topic.
Deaf Studies and Mental Health: How These Interests Converged
Koncz was 18 and a freshman in college when she took a beginner’s class in American Sign Language (ASL) to satisfy her school’s foreign language requirement. “Learning languages, traveling, and experiencing different cultures” had always been “passions.” When she realized her love for ASL, she decided to explore how she could turn this passion into a career and sought out the advice of her Deaf professor. After much reflection and discussion, she decided to pursue a career in sign language interpretation, because it would enable her to follow her heart while also allowing her “the chance to immerse myself in the Deaf Community and travel around the country.”
A developing interest in the field of mental health began just one year earlier. In the subsequent years, Koncz would attend many support groups with friends and family (for both mental illness and drug addiction); she would be trained and certified in Mental Health First Aid, participate in the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Peer-2-Peer mental health workshop, and volunteer and fundraise for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. As a restaurant server, she even honed her crisis intervention skills through interactions with angry customers.
“I believe everyone is affected by mental health conditions in some way or another, either by directly struggling with mental illness themselves or indirectly, in that they know of a family member or friend who may experience their own struggles with the disease,” Koncz said. Meanwhile, she was also serving the Deaf Community in various ways:
- After starting out as a summer camp counselor for the non-profit Deaf Camp, Inc., she went on to serve as a board member and co-direct Deaf and hearing children in the organization’s Younger ASL camp.
- She honed her ability to listen and convey empathy through paid roles working with children at the Maryland School for the Deaf, the Gateway School in Baltimore, Maryland, and the YMCA in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania.
“The Significance of Mental Health Services for the Betterment of People’s Lives”
Koncz speaks eloquently about the power of therapy and mental health services to save and better people’s lives. This “deep-seated conviction,” as Koncz called it in her essay, also emerged in our interview. What, we wondered, sustained Koncz’ optimism in the face of tragic stories like that of the Deaf man—and, when a similar reality (lack of access to mental health supports) played out in far too many homes across this country, with outcomes like suicide and overdose?
Yes, “receiving proper mental health care can dramatically make a difference in people’s lives,” Koncz said. She continued:
There are so many different empirically based therapeutic modalities out there as well as different psychiatric medications that can help individuals become the best version of themselves. No one should have to suffer in silence.
Too often, individuals don’t know the first step to take in trying to get help, but with further education and available resources, receiving help can become less of a “How do I do this?” question and more of an assurance like, “Ok, I know of this clinic or this hospital where I can get help.”
Another obstacle to individuals receiving help is that they’re concerned about the stigma associated with receiving mental health or substance abuse treatment. But the reality is that without help, the opposite happens.
As personal illustration, Koncz said, “I’ve lost two family members to drug overdoses, one friend to a drug overdose, one friend to suicide, and almost lost five others who attempted suicide. People are hurting, and there are too many obstacles to receiving help.”
More Reasons to Be Hopeful About Going into the Mental Health Field
A similar sense of optimism infused the conversation when Koncz talked about why she’s hopeful about going into the mental health field. “I’m hopeful … because as more people talk about mental health, especially people in the public eye, the less stigmatizing it becomes, and the more individuals are willing to enter therapy or treatment.”
Of course, there remain obstacles like lack of insurance coverage and inequity in access to services, Koncz acknowledged, “but we’ll get there, because we have to: People’s lives are at stake.” She emphasized that “awareness and education are key” and noted that “police officers are now being trained in the field of mental health to assist someone correctly who is experiencing a crisis.”
In short, “we still have a long way to go as a country, but we are continuing to put one foot in front of the other.”
Future Contributions as a Licensed Therapist for the Deaf Community?
What contributions does Koncz hope to make in her future role as a mental health counselor serving the Deaf Community? She most wants to be a catalyst for healing in the lives of those who come to her for therapy. She said she will also:
- “strive to offer a supportive, nurturing environment, free of judgment;
- do my best to continue to advocate for the needs of the Deaf Community;
- and encourage young college students to pursue careers as mental health practitioners fluent in ASL, who will continue to bridge the gap by providing equal access to mental health and substance abuse treatment for this unique population.”
Today, Koncz is pursuing these goals through graduate courses on trauma resiliency, multicultural and diversity issues, and telemental health counseling, as a graduate student in the clinical mental health counseling program at Adams State University; and, with the 2023 Hope for Healing Scholarship, she is one more step closer to achieving her dreams.