The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced Friday that it would add American Sign Language (ASL) services to the government’s 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline as part of efforts to expand behavioral health care services for underserved groups.
Those seeking to be connected with a 988 Lifeline counselor who is trained in ASL will now be prompted to click on the “ASL Now” button on 988lifeline.org and follow the instructions.
Direct dialing to 988 from a videophone — a device used by deaf and blind people that transmits video as well as audio — will be available in the coming weeks, according to the department. ASL callers can currently call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) from their videophone to access ASL services.
“Individuals across America who use ASL as their primary language can now readily access the support they need during a mental health crisis,” Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said in an agency news release. “This is a testament to our ongoing commitment to ensure that no one is left behind when it comes to mental health support.”
The addition of ASL services comes as part of attempts by the department’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) to improve the accessibility and reach of mental health resources.
In July, one year after the Biden-Harris administration launched the suicide and mental health crisis lifeline, Spanish text and chat services were added. That same month, SAMHSA announced that specialized services for LGBTQ youth and young adults would also be introduced.
“We’re talking about mental health in a way that we have not historically talked about,” Monica Johnson, director of the 988 & Behavioral Health Crisis Coordinating office at SAMHSA, said at a news conference after the new ASL services were announced, according to a CNN report.
Demand for mental health services has increased rapidly in recent years, particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The American Psychological Association’s 2022 COVID-19 Practitioner Impact Survey found that demand for anxiety and depression treatment remained high for the third consecutive year. Meanwhile, according to the Commonwealth Fund, as of March 2023, 160 million Americans live in areas with mental health professional shortages, with more than 8,000 professionals needed to meet the requests for services.
President Biden has vowed to address the nation’s growing mental health crisis by investing almost $1 billion into the lifeline, previously called the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
Data released by the HHS revealed that since the three-digit lifeline began operating in July 2022, almost 5 million calls, texts and online messages from those seeking support for suicide, mental health crises and substance abuse had been received across a national network of more than 200 state and local call centers.
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