Tinnitus affects more than 20% of Americans across the country, ranging from a mild yet annoying ringing to a debilitating and life-altering condition. Though the bothersome buzzing can reduce the quality of life of those suffering from tinnitus on its own, there is another consequence of tinnitus that often does not get the attention it deserves. Mental distress caused by tinnitus is a serious and dangerous complication, putting a person’s mental health in a precarious position and affecting those from all walks of life. William Shatner, famous actor and star of the Star-Trek TV series, explains in an editorial for the American Tinnitus Association, “Regardless of the characters I portray on TV and on the big screen, my tinnitus once buried me in a negative place where many of you are now – or have been. Believe me when I say, “I’ve been there.” Even with high-profile advocates focusing on mental health associated with Tinnitus, this mental distress is still troublingly absent from many doctor’s offices.
Depression, Anxiety, and Isolation
Like hearing loss, Tinnitus can result in serious mental distress during your day to day activities. Anxiety, depression, and behavior disorders are believed to affect over three-quarters of people living with severe tinnitus, prompting those struggling to isolate themselves, lose sleep, and even suffer from PTSD-like symptoms.
We have all been asked if we had “woken up on the wrong side of the bed.” before, but for those with tinnitus, this expression is sometimes a matter of fact. Insomnia is common with tinnitus, creating a vicious cycle in which sleeping becomes more difficult the more you worry about your tinnitus. Surveys have linked this cycle to irritability, anger, and externalized aggressive behavior.
Self-Harm and Suicide
Unfortunately, tinnitus may lead to even more horrifying outcomes. Due to mental distress, tinnitus has been linked to higher rates of self-harm and suicidal ideation. “It needs to be something audiologists aren’t afraid of. Mental health is not a taboo subject,” said Melissa Wikoff, AuD, for The Hearing Journal, “Sometimes we think the practice of audiology is not life or death. But sometimes with tinnitus, it really can be.”
A 2019 study analyzing the connection between suicide, tinnitus, and parental mental illness had come to a similar conclusion, recommending that hearing health professionals should screen for such ideations in patients, “especially for those with symptoms of depression and a childhood history of parental mental illness.”
Don’t Keep Hidden Distress Hidden For Long
Without receiving the proper help, tinnitus can quickly overwhelm your mental health. The fact that it isn’t widely spoken about is a mistake on the part of the healthcare community, and not one you should suffer from. If you are struggling with mental distress brought on by tinnitus, there is help for you. Cognitive-behavioral therapy, medication such as anti-depressants, and sound therapy are all treatment options that can help tame your tinnitus. As hearing professionals, we all must do better to raise awareness about the very real, yet unseen, aspects of tinnitus.