Rebecca Smith, Anna Spidel
If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available. Call or text 988 or chat 988lifeline.org
To access American Sign Language services via 988, you can call 1-800-273-8255 on a phone with video capabilities, or press the ASL NOW button on 988lifeline.org. The 988 Lifeline is working to make videophone services reachable via the 988 phone number in the coming weeks.
On a warm and sunny September day, Columbia’s Peace Park in Central Missouri was bustling with advocates and community members who gathered to celebrate the launch of a new 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline service designed for Deaf and Hard of Hearing people.
At the park there was hardly any small talk. Most people were there to discuss mental health and celebrate –– through chalk art, mural paintings, speeches and a wellness walk –– a big step forward in expanding access to care to underserved communities across the country, advocates said.
This comes after the Department of Health and Human Services announced the launch of the ASL service earlier this month.
The 988 Lifeline is a network of more than 200 state and local call centers supported by HHS to help people who have suicidal thoughts, mental health or substance use-related crises. The crisis line has received more than 5.5 million texts, calls and chats since its launch a little over a year ago.
The new service will offer crisis counseling in American Sign Language, which many Deaf and Hard of Hearing people speak as their primary or native language. The service will be accessible using a videophone, a device used by people who are deaf and blind that transmits audio and video.
Columbia-based DeafLEAD, an organization that currently offers crisis services for Deaf and Hard of Hearing people, will be one of two nationwide providers of this service.
“It's going to make a profound impact in our community,” said Sol Romero, the videophone crisis line operations manager for DeafLEAD, who spoke through an interpreter. “It’s history happening in the making for Deaf individuals and their mental health.”
The new 988 videophone service is unique because it directly connects users who speak ASL with a crisis counselor who also speaks ASL, which is different from other services that rely on an interpreter.
Romero said it is crucial to have a crisis line where Deaf and Hard of Hearing people can communicate in the language of their choice without the need for an interpreter, especially in times of crisis. Romero became deaf at 23 and speaks ASL. He hopes this new service will expand access to culturally competent mental health care.
“Deaf people do die by suicide, as well, and Deaf people are in crisis, as well. We're all humans. We raise children, we have families, the only difference between you and myself is [that] I'm deaf,” Romero said. “That's the only difference.”
Tia Dole, the chief 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline officer with Vibrant Emotional Health –– a non-profit that administers the crisis line, said this is just one step toward 988’s goal of making its services accessible to all people who may need them.
“We want everybody who lives in this country, regardless of immigration status, regardless of who they are, where they live, to feel comfortable using 988 and to be able to speak in their language,” she said.
More work to be done
There is an awareness gap across the country. Since the launch of the 988 crisis line more than a year ago, only 17% of people in the U.S. said they are very or somewhat familiar with the service, according to a recent survey by the National Alliance on Mental Illness. And nearly every state still reports vacant positions at their crisis line response centers.
Mental health leaders and advocates say there is more work to be done to meet a growing demand. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s data, 14 million adults in the U.S. had a serious mental illness in 2021, and 12.3 million seriously considered suicide. These rates are growing among young people especially.
Stationed across from the stage at Columbia’s Peace Park, local artist Adrienne Luther Johnson painted a colorful mural inspired by wellness and 988. As a millennial, she said she’s seen a rise in mental health awareness growing up and hopes to continue that conversation through her artwork.
“To be a part of it now where I have gone through all these lessons of depression and anxiety and my relationship with my mental health and self care –– it's just really nice to be able to have that present in my work, to have open and honest and vulnerable conversations with people,” Luther Johnson said.
LaShawna Samuel with Missouri’s Department of Social Services stood near the plywood board at the park where event attendees wrote messages of hope. She said it’s crucial for people to know 988 Lifeline services are there for everyone to turn to in times of crisis.
“Don't wait until there's a crisis or you feel like you want to harm yourself,” said Samuel. “Even if you're having a bad day and you want someone to talk to who's maybe someone that hasn't heard you a million times already. Go ahead and pick up the phone and call, text [and] video chat.”
Side Effects Public Media is a health reporting collaboration based at WFYI in Indianapolis. We partner with NPR stations across the Midwest and surrounding areas — including KBIA and KCUR in Missouri, Iowa Public Radio, Ideastream in Ohio and WFPL in Kentucky.