By Tracy Waller, Esq., MPH
On September 8, 2023, the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, added nationwide American Sign Language (ASL) services in an effort to make suicide prevention more accessible. In 2020, as directed by Congress through the enacted budget for Fiscal Year 2021, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), launched the 988 dialing code through the existing National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. The creation of 988 expanded access for people experiencing mental health crisis through an easily remembered three-digit number.
However, upon its launch, the hotline was not universally accessible. On December 14, 2020, we issued Comments to Communications Equality Advocations Petition for Reconsideration commending the efforts to secure the 988 hotline for people in crisis, but noting the lack of accessibility. The Comments highlighted inequities experienced by specific groups; most notably, by “failing to include the text-to 988 capabilities and Direct Video Calling Capabilities, this new service will be in direct violation of disability civil rights law that has been the law of the land for decades.”
While Lifeline previously offered (and continues to offer) teletypewriter, text and chat tools, Hannah Wesolowski, chief advocacy officer at the National Alliance on Mental Illness, discussed with ABC News, the importance and increased accessibility that ASL video service creates. “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.”’
Monica Johnson, director of SAMHSA’s 988 and Behavioral Health Crisis Coordinating Office, also spoke to ABC News and mentioned the requests for ASL services on another SAMHSA-funded helpline, the Disaster Distress Helpline. She added that SAMHSA hoped including ASL services at Lifeline would reach more people in a similar way.
According to a recent Gallup poll, rates of depression have reached new heights in almost all populations, with rates rising the fastest among women, young adults, and black and Hispanic adults.
DeafLead CEO Dr. Stephanie Logan said it best, “Mental health care is not a privilege but a right.”
“Millions of people in the Deaf community will now have access to the crucial support available through the 988 Lifeline,” said Alison Barkoff, who leads the U.S. Administration for Community Living; thus making the 988 hotline more accessible. Earlier this year, in March 2023, the 988 Lifeline began offering 24/7 text and chat services that are LGBTQ-inclusive crisis care services after piloting the services from September 2022 through February 2023. By making 988 more inclusive, many more people will have access to potentially life-saving services and access to care.
 The Center for Dignity in Healthcare for People with Disabilities (which has now become the National Center for Disability, Equity, and Intersectionality).