LOS ANGELES - Federal officials Thursday announced the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline now offers Spanish text and chat services across the country -- with a leading mental health care provider in California saying the move will increase access to "live-saving services."
The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is a network of more than 200 locally operated and funded crisis centers around the country, with California responding to more 988 calls than any other state, officials said.
"It's perfect that right here, on the precipice of the one year anniversary, we're now launching the ability for Spanish-speaking individuals to text and chat," Shari Sinwelski, Vice President of Crisis Care at Culver City-based Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services, told City News Service.
It is one of the state's leading agencies responding to 988 calls. Sinwelski said having a service available in someone's native language "makes it easier and more comfortable" for people to communicate, consider their culture and understand certain stigmas that may be associated with seeking mental health services.
For people experiencing a mental health crisis, the 988 online chat can be accessed at 988lifeline.org/chat or by texting 988.
On Thursday morning, Sinwelski joined U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, mental health and substance use experts at Comunilife in New York City for a press conference to discuss 988's new Spanish services.
Becerra called 988 "life changing" and described the program as a "true game changer when it came to mental health and substance use services." In its first year, 988 served 5 million Americans, he added.
To follow up on that success, the Dept. of Health and Human Services sought to "reach everyone," Becerra said.
According to Didi Hirsch, the agency and its 11 partners, other crisis centers, respond to more than 280,000 contacts via calls, texts and chats annually. In California -- in 2022 alone -- Didi Hirsch responded to about 1,200 - 1,400 calls a month through their Spanish line, she added.
"I'm sure there's going to be new opportunities for new data moving forward," Sinwelski said.
In California and in cities like Los Angeles with a large population of Spanish-speakers, a Spanish hotline has been available since 2006, Sinwelski said. However, prior to Thursday's announcement, chat and text services were only available in English.
"We know that when a person is in crisis -- even when you're not in crisis -- it's hard sometimes to ask for help, so we want to do everything we can to make that as easy as possible for people," Sinwelski said. "Chat and text can make it easier for people to reach out."
Didi Hirsch is one of three national organizations with bilingual counselors. A lot of calls the agency receives in Southern California come from Spanish-speakers, Sinwelski noted.
Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that suicide continues to be a significant public health crisis across the country with rates of suicide for Hispanic people increasing 38% from 2013 to 2020.
"The message here is that we're breaking down stigma," Becerra said. "We're letting people know they can reach out. Far too many people don't know where they can go."
"It doesn't take much to be able to reach 988," he added.
Becerra lastly urged non-profits, community groups and young people to spread the word on 988's Spanish services.
"We have work to do. We want folks to understand that 988 is 911, if you're having mental health or substance use challenges," Becerra said.