'You feel helpless': Tinnitus and its impact on mental health

Imagine hearing a constant noise that’s amplified in silence.

This is what people with tinnitus deal with all of the time. It’s usually a life-long condition once it starts, and there isn’t a cure.

Tinnitus has plenty of triggers, from loud noise to coronavirus – the latter of which could mean even more people are now living with the hearing condition.

It impacts people across society. Studies have suggested the loud noises emitted from professional coffee machines have led to rise in the condition in baristas, for example.

So far, more than seven million adults in the UK have it – and it needs to be taken seriously.

New data from the British Tinnitus Association (BTA) finds that one in 10 tinnitus suffers have experienced suicidal thoughts as a result of the condition, revealing the severe mental health impact it has.

They also found a third of people people think about their condition every hour, causing anxiety and sadness, while a third withdraw from social situations, believing people ‘don’t understand’.

Oto, an app supporting those with tinnitus, launched a page last week for Tinnitus Awareness Week to help those ‘understand’ the sounds sufferers could be hearing through a mix of sound clips.

For tinnitus sufferer Darren, a 47-year-old from Essex, this is just one of the reasons why the condition affects his mental health and wellbeing.

He tells Metro.co.uk: ‘I was unable to function in normal daily activities, could not socialise and couldn’t be around my family due to noise sensitivity.

‘I felt very shut off from the world with no one to help and know cure known.

‘You can’t shut the sound of tinnitus off, it’s there 24/7. Feelings of anger, loneliness, helplessness and fear were very real.’

Darren was officially diagnosed in November 2020 after figuring it out for himself some months earlier.

He says: ‘I pretty much had to self-diagnose.

‘I was waiting for such a long time for the NHS due to waiting lists and lack of knowledge that I researched as much as I could which led me to the BTA.

‘It was only when I went to a private doctor, around three months after the onset, that she told me I had most likely hyperacusis alongside tinnitus.’

Since then, he has been on medication to calm his mind and lower the intrusiveness of tinnitus, as well as trying therapy and a hearing aid that was designed to reduce noise levels.

Darren says the early stages of having tinnitus are especially hard, as you’re hyperaware of it.

‘For the first few months, no lie, it is 100% of the day’s focus,’ he says.

‘You listen to see if it is louder, quieter, or if it has changed in pitch or tone.

‘Over a year later, with the management techniques I have learned, I would say it is noticeable around 20% of my day – mainly due to work stress or my kids when they are noisy.’

According to the BTA, the number of tinnitus cases in the UK could grow by half a million over the next decade – especially that now it’s a recognised symptom of Long Covid.

In some cases, people have likened the sound they hear to ‘a high-pitched hiss’, ‘screaming’ or ‘like a pressure cooker going off’.

Part of the issue is also due to tinnitus research receiving a 40 times less funding than comparable conditions.

Kirsty Stewart, who lives in Hampshire, has had tinnitus for three years. She’s 31, proving it can come into a person’s life at any time.

After being diagnosed, she says she was told: ‘The best thing to do was to live with it.’

She says: ‘I really felt disheartened and thought “How can I live with this condition? It is destroying my life”. I felt really let down.

‘When I got the diagnosis I was scared and started to research it. This really stressed me out.

‘My stress and tinnitus became a toxic cycle where my tinnitus made me feel stressed and my stress made the tinnitus worse.

‘In the first three months it affected my mental health drastically.

‘Tinnitus felt like torture and my mental health was destroyed.

‘One day I was walking with my mum and told her that did want to live anymore. It must be every parent’s worst nightmare to hear, but I really felt that bad.’

At her worst, tinnitus is on her mind constantly. At her best, it’s something she only consciously thinks about when hearing a high pitched noise.

No treatment that’s currently available has worked for Kirsty, so she’s gone down the holistic route to relieve symptoms.

‘I have had physiotherapy and reflexology and I feel so much better now than I did.

‘I have been able to reframe tinnitus in my mind and I feel much more in control,’ she adds.

Now, people with tinnitus, charities and academics have called for a ‘tinnitus biobank’ to be created with the aim of finding cures for the condition.

Tinnitus healthcare costs the NHS £750m per year, but there seems to be a ‘revolving door’ of patients, as more than eight out of 10 patients are dissatisfied with current treatment options.

While some people repeatedly re-visit their GP, many give up on seeking support – making the experience even more isolating.

According the BTA, of the people who last saw their GP more than a year ago for tinnitus, only 2.4% say their treatment worked, while 46% believe ‘there doesn’t seem to be any point’.

While the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) introduced new guidance in 2021 to improve the care given for tinnitus, only 1.82% of respondents say this had a positive impact on their condition.

It’s now believed a biobank could help address these shortcomings through more thorough research, as it would ‘collate medical, audiological and condition-specific information as well as biological samples, from people with tinnitus’.

Dr Will Sedley, Academic Clinical Lecturer at Newcastle University, says: ‘A tinnitus biobank would have detailed and rigorous tinnitus data from very large numbers of people.

‘It could therefore move the field forwards in ways that have not been possible so far, for instance in pinning down underlying mechanisms, and identifying distinct subtypes which may have different causes, impacts, prognoses and treatment responses.’

There is clearly also the need for better mental health provision for sufferers.

If you’ve been affected by the themes in the article, you can call the Samaritans for free 24/7 on 116 123.

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