988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline adopts ASL services for deaf and hard of hearing

Sources say the new services mark an important "milestone" for the Lifeline.

September 8, 2023, 8:10 AM

The 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline now offers American Sign Language services for the deaf and hard of hearing, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration announced Friday.

Users can connect with the service on the 988 Lifeline website using the “ASL now” button or dial into the previous ten-digit number (1-800-273-8255) using a video phone to reach a Lifeline counselor trained in ASL. Callers will be able to connect to the service after dialing 988 in the coming weeks, according to SAMHSA.

“We're demonstrating our commitment to supporting individuals that are deaf or hard of hearing and need mental health or substance use support services, and we are making sure that we are continuing to be equitable in terms of access,” Monica Johnson, director of SAMHSA’s 988 and Behavioral Health Crisis Coordinating Office, told ABC News.

PHOTO: A deaf man with his back turned
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Since the Lifeline launched under its new three-digit number in July 2022, SAMHSA reports that it has received over 5.5 million contacts (calls, texts and chats). It has received nearly $1 billion in funding from the Biden-Harris Administration to help stand up and expand the service.

Johnson explained that ASL services have been part of the vision for 988 since the beginning, calling the moment an important “milestone,” coming just after the Lifeline’s first anniversary at its new number.

“Traditionally, we have seen that there are a lot more barriers to care for the deaf and hard of hearing community in accessing mental health services,” Hannah Wesolowski, chief advocacy officer at the National Alliance on Mental Illness, told ABC News. “So seeing the video phone-enabled services being offered, I think it's going to be a huge improvement in making sure we're increasing access.”

National Association of the Deaf CEO Howard A. Rosenblum said in a press release that the new service comes after “years of advocacy to ensure that 988 is available to everyone not only through voice calls but also texting and video for sign language users.”

The Lifeline has offered teletypewriter, text and chat tools that are accessible for deaf and hard-of-hearing people, but Wesolowski noted that some of those options may not feel as personal for some users.

“Being able to speak in the language that you are used to speaking in, and being able to do that via ASL I think will reach a broader part of the population,” she added. “And the ASL video services certainly create another point of engagement, that I think better supports that access to care.”

PHOTO: A 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline sign at the entrance to Taft Bridge in Washington is photographed on Feb. 10, 2023.
A 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline sign at the entrance to Taft Bridge in Washington is photographed on Feb. 10, 2023.
Kelly Livingston/ABC News

The ASL video calls will be fielded by two of the call centers in the 200-plus center Lifeline network. One of those centers, DeafLEAD, already operates on a similar basis for another SAMHSA-funded helpline -- the Disaster Distress Helpline.

“What we've learned from that line is that the need is there [for ASL services],” Johnson said. “And so if we're able to offer what apparently is something that people desire, then we can reach people where they are and the way in which they need to be communicated with, the way they want to communicate -- their preferences are put first. And so I think that we're hoping to see similar things here.”

DeafLEAD CEO Dr. Stephanie Logan said in a release her organization is “deeply honored to be a part of this historical moment.”

“Mental health care is not a privilege but a right,” Logan added. “The introduction of 988 videophone services is a reflection of our collective pursuit of a society where no one feels isolated in times of crisis and ensures that the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community have equitable access to a vital and life-saving service.”

PHOTO: Young couple sit on sofa at home communicating using sign language,
STOCK IMAGE/Getty Images

The additional service is the latest specialized offering from the Lifeline, following the adoption of an LGBTQ+ youth line earlier this year. 988 also offers connections to the Veterans Crisis Line and a Spanish line.

Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Beccera said in a press release that the introduction of ASL services is “a testament to our ongoing commitment to ensure that no one is left behind when it comes to mental health support."

Suicide is one of the leading causes of death in the United States. Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released its provisional estimates for suicide deaths in the country last year and found that suicide deaths increased for a second year in a row to an estimated 49,449 deaths.

When it comes to suicide prevention, Wesolowski says, “We want to remove any barriers and make people as comfortable as possible because they are putting themselves in such a vulnerable situation, and they are in a vulnerable state, you want to remove any obstacles that might be in their way.”

If you are struggling with thoughts of suicide or worried about a friend or loved one, call or text the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 for free, confidential emotional support 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You can connect with ASL services on the 988 Lifeline website using the “ASL now” button or dial into the previous ten-digit number (1-800-273-8255) using a video phone to reach a Lifeline counselor trained in ASL.

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