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Award recognizes state efforts to make mental health care available to all deaf Minnesotans

The DHS program offers a variety of services, including a statewide crisis response team fluent in American Sign Language (ASL).

Earlier this fall, at the Minnesota Association of Deaf Citizens’ biennial conference in St. Cloud, the Minnesota Department of Human Services’ (DHS) mental health program for people who are deaf, deafblind and hard of hearing was honored with the Gordon Allen Community award, a statewide honor that recognizes individuals and organizations for their work to promote the rights of deaf and hard-of-hearing Minnesotans.

The award highlighted the work of the program, which aims to meet the mental health needs of deaf Minnesotans through a variety of services including a statewide crisis response team fluent in American Sign Language (ASL) and mental health services for children, adolescents, adults and families who are deaf, deafblind or hard of hearing. The services are provided through contractors in schools, homes, hospitals and clinics.

Approximately 12 percent of Minnesotans have some level of hearing loss, said Jennifer DeCubellis, DHS assistant commissioner for community supports.

“That is some 600,000 people,” she explained. “One in five of those people will face a mental health challenge at some point in their lives. So we are talking about approximately 120,000 deaf and hard-of-hearing people who potentially could be struggling with mental health needs. And some may not have access to the care they deserve.”

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Because mental health care requires face-to-face interactions between a therapist and a patient, it is essential that deaf people can work with providers fluent in ASL, DeCubellis said.   

“Think of how difficult it is to provide high-quality mental health services to begin with. Then imagine having a translator sitting in the room with the patient and the therapist during a session. Sure, it can be possible to make this arrangement work, but in that situation you most definitely lose something in the translation. The deaf community deserves better mental health care and we are committed to working toward making that happen.” 

Language barrier

Sonny Wasilowski, Minnesota Association of Deaf Citizens member and past vice president, said that acknowledging that gaps exist in mental health options for deaf Minnesotans is an important first step in reaching his organization’s goal of equal access to care for all.

“There is a language barrier that exists in mental health,” Wasilowski said through an interpreter. “For the deaf community, it has been a continuous struggle with communication access for everyday things. We’re just trying to break down that barrier so we can be provided services and get access to services. We are looking for direct mental health service where a person can interact one-on-one with a therapist without having a third person in the process.”

He said that the Association of Deaf Citizens chose to honor the DHS program and director John Gournaris, Ph.D., because of its commitment to improving access.

Sonny Wasilowski
Sonny Wasilowski

Under Gournaris’ founding leadership, DeCubellis said, the program has expanded its reach, including the recent hiring of a mental health professional based in Moorhead who will be focused on the deaf and hard-of-hearing community. (The state also funds deaf and hard-of-hearing mental health specialists in St. Cloud, Mankato and Duluth.) Funding for this position — some $130,000 — was set aside by the state Legislature last session, in addition to another $100,000 earmarked for mental health care for deaf and hard-of-hearing children.   

The Minnesota Association of Deaf Citizens wants to emphasize Gournaris’ role in the success of his department, Wasilowski said: “John Gournaris is deaf himself. He is a professional of mental health programs. It is very important that he’s recognized. Our organization is run by and for deaf people. We nominate and recognize people who are deaf themselves.” 

The St. Paul-based association is one of the oldest organizations in the state, Wasilowski said: “It was founded in 1885 and continues to operate today. It was established for people who are deaf who were wanting to preserve their sign language and communication skills.”

The nonprofit is dedicated to promoting a better quality of life for deaf people. “It is very prideful organization,” Wasilowski continued. “We are very proud our work — and the work of deaf people.”

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Statewide coverage

In the past, the few mental health providers who were culturally sensitive to the needs of the deaf and hard-of-hearing community were clustered in the Twin Cities area, Wasilowski said. That made it hard for people who lived in Greater Minnesota to find culturally sensitive mental health care without having to travel hundreds of miles.

“A lot of deaf people move to the Twin Cities to get more services,” he said. “But people who aren’t able to move face very difficult, significant barriers.”

The expansion of mental health services for the deaf and heard of hearing to yet another region of the state was good news to Wasilowski, a member of a multigenerational deaf family whose parents live in rural Minnesota.

“We need to have qualified counselors and psychologists that are fluent in American Sign Language themselves,” Wasilowski said. “We need to encourage more deaf individuals to get involved in the profession and come to Minnesota and work in the state. Another option would be if a hearing professional would become fluent in ASL. That could be helpful as well.”

Jennifer DeCubellis
Jennifer DeCubellis

DeCubellis said that in an effort to improve access, the state continues to search out qualified mental health professionals to serve the needs of the deaf community.

“We are looking for mental health professionals that are fluent in ASL,” she said. It’s not enough to realize that access to mental health care is a problem: Action also has to be taken. “We are looking to spread some additional culturally sensitive mental health positions around the state. Part of that is doing grants and partnering with community providers to make some more hires. We’d like to get to the point where ideally every single provider in the state has somebody on staff who can provide translation and support for the deaf community.”

That is good news to Wasilowski. Qualified mental health professionals who understand the unique needs of the deaf community are in high demand. They’d have no problem finding new patients. “There are still not enough providers qualified to provide direct service to the deaf community,” he said. “So when we do bring in a new [mental health] professional to Minnesota, the person becomes very important to the deaf community.”