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New ASL resources through 988 will offer more suicide prevention support to Deaf and hard of hearing people

A  sidewalk through Peace Park. The word "GROW" is written in bright blue chalk and above it - the sign for it is shown in peach, flesh-colored chalk.
Rebecca Smith
The celebration event featured a Wellness Walk, free pizza, resources from DeafLEAD and other 988 partner organizations and various forms of art. Artist Hunter McGrath drew numerous messages of support and hope on the sidewalks throughout Peace Park. "It is important to always ask for help even if you don't think that what you need is worth the help. Just ask for it because you are always worth the help," she said.

On a warm and sunny day in Columbia’s Peace Park, advocates and community members gathered to celebrate the launch of a new 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline service designed for Deaf and hard of hearing people.

While the crisis line has offered text and call services via the 988 phone number for more than a year now, the organization recently announced the launch of a new video phone service that will offer crisis counseling in American Sign Language.

Adrienne Luther Johnson stands in front of a brightly covered mural - painting.
Rebecca Smith
Local artist Adrienne Luther Johnson said talking about 988 in a colorful and playful way - through art - is an important part of destigmatizing asking for help. “I feel like as a millennial, I feel like we were raised through this evolution of the erasure of the stigma with suicide talk, like any sort of mental health discussion," she said.

As of right now, the service can be accessed by calling 1-800-273-8255 on a phone with video capabilities, or by pressing 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.

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.

Sol Romero, the videophone crisis line operations manager for DeafLEAD, attended and spoke at the event with other members of the DeafLEAD team.

He highlighted the importance of having 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 a world where accessibility is limited.

“It's going to make a profound impact in our community,” Romero said. “It’s history happening, in the making for Deaf individuals and their mental health.”

Romero became deaf at 23 years old and speaks ASL. He emphasized ASL is not English - it is its own separate language many Deaf and hard of hearing people speak as their primary or native language. Because of this, he said it’s important for people to have access to culturally competent care from someone who speaks their language - especially in times of crisis.

“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 I'm Deaf. That's the only difference,” Romero said.

DeafLEAD 988 Crisis Line Announcement - Sol Romero.mp4
A full ASL interview with DeafLEAD's Sol Romero - captions and English interpretation provided.

The 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 require an interpreter for the caller and crisis counselor to communicate. Many advocates and partners at the event, including Tia Dole, stressed the significance of this as a step toward full accessibility.

Dole is the Chief 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline Officer with Vibrant Emotional Health, a non-profit that administers the 988 lifeline. She said the videophone is just one part of 988’s goal to make 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,” Dole said.

In addition to a host of advocates and partners, the launch event was filled with people who came out to celebrate the new service and open up the conversation about mental health. There were also activities and events like chalk art, mural painting, live performances and a wellness walk.

LaShawna Samuel (left), Stefan Jackson (center) and John Ginwright (right) stand in front of a large colorful mural. The numbers 988 are visible over Samuel's shoulder.
Rebecca Smith
LaShawna Samuel (left), Stefan Jackson (center) and John Ginwright (right) attended the event. Samuel, who works for the Missouri Department of Social Services, said it's important more mental health education is done - especially with youth. "Nowadays, they're faced with so many challenges that we never grew up with coming up back in our time," she said. "So it's important to make sure that their mental health and well being is being heard, and they have services that can address that."

Stationed across from the stage, 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 throughout her life 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, be able to have open and honest and vulnerable conversations with people,” Luther Johnson said.

John Ginwright, the deputy division director of the Missouri Department of Social Services, also attended the event. He spoke about the importance of making services like 988 Lifeline available to the younger generation, as well as the need for continued mental health education.

“There is a mental health crisis that our youth are experiencing, and a lot of times the older generation can't relate to that because they did it a different way when they were growing up,” Ginwright said.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, "mental health challenges are the leading cause of disability and poor life outcomes in young people."

LaShawna Samuel also works with Missouri’s Department of Social Services. Near the plywood board where event attendees wrote messages of hope, Samuel 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,” Samuel said. “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, video chat.”

"Keep on going" is written in bright red and blue chalk on a sidewalk in Peace Park. Above it is a drawing of two hands forming the ASL sign for "Continue."
Rebecca Smith
Dozens of Deaf and hard of hearing people, as well as those who hear, gathered in Peace Park for the announcement of the new ASL videophone line through 988.

If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available. Call or text 988 or chat 988lifeline.org

To access ASL 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.

For a transcript of the radio story, click here.

Anna Spidel is a health reporter for the KBIA Health & Wealth desk. A proud Michigander, Anna hails from Dexter, Michigan and received her Bachelor of Arts in Journalism from Michigan State University in 2022. Previously, she worked with member station Michigan Radio as an assistant producer on Stateside.
Rebecca Smith is an award-winning reporter and producer for the KBIA Health & Wealth Desk. Born and raised outside of Rolla, Missouri, she has a passion for diving into often overlooked issues that affect the rural populations of her state – especially stories that broaden people’s perception of “rural” life.
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