As society sees a rapid rise in mental health cases and suicide, how can we help if someone we know is struggling?
It could happen to anyone
A mental health crisis can happen to anyone, even those who don’t have an existing mental health condition. Sometimes (though not always), the person in crisis may experience self-harm impulses or suicidal ideation.
In these cases, knowing how to recognize what’s happening and react appropriately can save someone’s life. According to the American Association of Suicidology, there are critical red flags to look for.
What does a mental health crisis look like?
Mental health emergencies look different for different people. You may notice warning signs in advance, or they may seem to come out of nowhere.
In general, changes in behavior (such as changes in work or school performance, social isolation, increased use of drugs and/or alcohol, and loss of interest in usual activities or hobbies) are often indicators that someone’s mental health is deteriorating.
Other potential signs of a mental health crisis may include:
- inability to perform daily tasks (such as not getting out of bed, not eating, or failing to go to work/school)
- poor hygiene, such as failing to bathe or change clothes regularly
- suicidal thoughts or self-harm behaviors
- psychosis (including hallucinations or delusions)
- paranoia or seeming disconnected from reality
- feelings of hopelessness, depression, irritability, anger, or anxiety
What causes a mental health crisis?
A wide range of factors can cause mental health emergencies. In some cases, a crisis might result from an existing mental health condition being aggravated or exacerbated. Other times, a mental health crisis might be caused by trauma (such as a natural disaster or an accident) or a stressful event (such as the death of a loved one, the end of a relationship, or the loss of a job).
Although anyone can experience a mental health crisis, some groups are more vulnerable than others. These include individuals with pre-existing mental health conditions, those without robust support systems or coping mechanisms, people living in crowded environments, and people who have experienced economic losses.
The ways to deescalate a mental health crisis
Witnessing someone in crisis can make you feel powerless and scared, and it’s essential that you equip yourself with the proper knowledge, skills, and resources. Particularly if that person is suicidal, your intervention could save their life.
The American Association of Suicidology recommends the following guidelines as a starting point for helping someone navigate a mental health emergency –
1. Assess the situation
Talk to the person in crisis and ask them what they’re feeling or experiencing. If they seem like they might be a danger to themselves or others, try to remove any potentially dangerous items, such as medications, firearms, car keys, or knives. If you can, stay with them until the crisis has passed or they’ve gotten help. Remember to keep your own safety in mind, too. If you feel your well-being is in danger at any point, leave the situation.
2. Listen compassionately
In difficult situations like this, worrying about saying the wrong thing is normal. However, experts agree that the most important thing you can do for someone experiencing a crisis is simply to listen, be with them, and let them know you’re there to help. Offer validation and support, and avoid judging, lecturing, or reacting angrily. Try to ask the following questions:
- Are you thinking about suicide?
- Are you currently seeing a mental health professional?
- What coping strategies and self-care usually help when you’re feeling bad?
- How can I help?
3. Connect them with support
If the person is already seeing a mental health professional, encourage them to contact that person. If they’re not already receiving treatment, offer to help them find a mental health provider or local support group.
If they don’t have a current provider or need immediate help, encourage them to call or text a crisis resource, such as the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline or the NAMI crisis text line. It’s a good idea to save these numbers on your phone so they’re easily accessible if you ever need them.
If you believe the person is an imminent danger to themselves or others, take them to the nearest emergency room or call 911. If you call the emergency services, be sure to give the dispatcher as much information as possible about the person’s symptoms and what they’re experiencing.
4. Practice self-care
Seeing someone through a crisis can be physically and emotionally exhausting. Once they are safe, be sure to take care of your own needs and seek support if you need it.
Witnessing someone you know go through a mental health crisis can be scary and stressful. It can also cause strain on your own mental health, both in the short term as well as the longer term. However, knowing what to do when you recognize that someone you know is having a mental health crisis can help the impact it can have on you.
If you, or someone you, requires support for your mental health, reach out to an appropriate organization to help – they exist for that very purpose, so don’t be afraid to use them.
For further information on how organizations such as the Samaritans can help in a time of crisis, see our Get Help pages for further information.