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Urgent need for mental health resources for deaf, hard of hearing community

Roughly 500,000 people across Wisconsin are affected by hearing loss. There are only two licensed mental health counselors statewide who use American Sign Language as their first language.
Posted at 9:51 PM, Feb 20, 2024
and last updated 2024-02-20 22:51:49-05

MILWAUKEE — Roughly 500,000 people across Wisconsin are affected by hearing loss.

That’s why the two licensed mental health counselors statewide who use American Sign Language as their first language are not enough.

Denise Johnson is the Statewide Program coordinator for Mental Health and Substance Use Services for people who are deaf, hard of hearing, and deaf-blind at Independence First. She’s held the role for 21 years.

“I do a lot of advocacy in my work and help patients that have a hard time getting to see clinicians,” Johnson signed.

Johnson reached out after reading about an 18-year-old struck by a vehicle near Crestwood and Silver Spring Drive.

That 18-year-old is Tastasia Turner. Her mom, Lashika, said she is deaf and has schizophrenia.

As Turner recovers, her mom believes it could have been prevented if she had access to mental health care.

“I’ve been begging for help for my baby because I knew she would hurt herself or somebody else,” Lashika said on February 3rd after the crash.

But Johnson explained that those who are deaf or hard of hearing have limited choices.

This is due in part to a shortage of mental health providers who are deaf or have a sufficient understanding of communicating with people who are deaf.

In fact, Johnson explained that there are only two licensed mental health counselors in Wisconsin who use American Sign Language as their first language.

‘When I looked at Tastasia’s story, I felt like this was an opportunity to educate people about the need,” Johnson signed. “We should be preventing. She should’ve been able to receive the services she needed prior to something horrible happening to her.”

Johnson is also a board member of the Wisconsin Association of the Deaf and serves on the national board of The American Deafness and Rehabilitation Association.

In the past, she’s attended Joint Finance Committee budget hearings at the Wisconsin State Legislature.

Johnson has pushed twice for $1.9 million as part of the state’s proposed budget to expand services to deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals. Both times, it was vetoed.

“The $1.9 million would help provide access to education institutions, testing, and also help provide for internships,’ Johnson signed.

Along with needed changes to licensing and expensive costs of care, she explained everyone can start to help by simply spreading the word.

“It starts with our counterparts who can hear, advocating and speaking with us, and listening to our needs,” Johnson explained.

Anyone interested in helping can reach out to Independence First at 414-291-7520. They have an advocacy team led by Johnson.

If you or a loved one is struggling to access mental health services, you can also reach out to these organizations: