Mental Health Sign Language Interpreter Role

Sign Language Interpreters work in a variety of settings. One of the most challenging settings is mental health.  This may include inpatient or emergency room appointments, outpatient ongoing treatments, or in-unit mental health institutional appointments.  When interpreting for or selecting an interpreter for these appointments and treatments, it is critical to consider the background and knowledge required for this setting since the mental health sign language interpreter role is critical to the success of patients’ recovery.

Mental Health SettingsMental Health Sign Language Interpreter Role

Sign language interpreters may be called in to various mental health settings.  These include emergency room visits, outpatient appointments, inpatient admission, day programs, self-help groups (i.e. AA, NA, 12-step programs), and others.  Specific types of appointments include therapy and counseling either one-on-one or group, medication exams, medical appointments, and religious services.  According to RID’s Standard Practice Paper about Mental Health Interpreting, sign language interpreters should be familiar with these settings and their terminology to effectively interpret.


Names of medication, symptoms, and side effects may be discussed in specific detail.  Qualified interpreters will understand the purpose of various medications and questions clinicians ask.  If an interpreter is unfamiliar with terminology, they use tools for meaningful deduction and often stop to ask for clarification.

Interpreter as Part of the Team

The mental health sign language interpreter role may include involvement with the mental health team.  The interpreter may be called upon to contribute linguistic and cultural information regarding sign language and the Deaf community.  They will share their expertise with the clinician(s) so the doctors can accurately diagnose and/or treat the patient.  They will also keep in mind the sensitive nature of topics in this setting.  Confidentiality is just as important as the recovery of the patient. See Ethics When Working with a Sign Language Interpreter.

Compassion Fatigue

Frequently when working in mental health environments, professionals experience compassion fatigue also known as vicarious trauma.  Any individual would have an emotional reaction when meeting patients who suffer from depression, OCD, schizophrenia, and other mental illnesses.   A mental health sign language interpreter role requires an even deeper and ongoing emotional connection to patients.  Interpreters take on the feelings of patients when providing an accurate translation.  Mental health professions, and especially interpreters, will likely experience similar emotions after working in such environments.  They may become depressed or withdrawn.  Refer to Sign Language Interpreter Burnout for more specific information about the dangers of and how to avoid compassion fatigue.



Interpreting in Mental Health Settings

Code of Professional Conduct


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