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How to Help Someone in a Mental Health Crisis

May is Mental Health Month. It’s a great time to become more intimately acquainted with your own mental health needs and educate yourself on specific topics within the field of mental health. Just as it’s essential to keep a first aid kit on hand to ensure your preparedness for medical emergencies, it is vital to understand what happens in mental health crises and how best to respond to them. This idea is incredibly potent given that both adult and child suicide rates have increased over the past decade. This article will cover the definition of a mental health crisis, warning signs, common risk factors, and how to help someone navigate through a mental health crisis.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) defines a mental health crisis as “any situation in which a person’s behavior puts them at risk of hurting themselves or others and prevents them from being able to care for themselves or function effectively in the community.” These situations can include suicidal behavior, violence, threatening behavior, and many other actions that can reasonably put oneself and others at risk.

While it may be difficult to pinpoint when a mental health crisis is happening, many potential warning signs exist. These warning signs can include no longer performing daily living tasks such as bathing, brushing teeth, changing clothes, or sticking to a routine sleep schedule. Additional warning signs include isolating from friends or family, missing work or school, rapid mood swings, increased agitation, general irritability, abusive behaviors towards others, or self-harm, such as cutting. Particular warning signs for potential suicide can include a preoccupation with death, talking as if “saying goodbye” or going away forever, stockpiling medications, or obtaining a dangerous weapon such as a gun.

Many risk factors may put someone at a higher likelihood of experiencing a mental health crisis. Having a preexisting mental health diagnosis or experiencing significant mental health challenges are two of the biggest. If you know someone diagnosed with depression or someone currently experiencing job stress, it is evident that this can impact mood, thoughts, and behavior. Additional risk factors include home and environmental stressors such as frequent arguments and school or work stressors such as failing grades or losing a job. Other life events that may serve as risk factors include using or abusing drugs and alcohol, or ending mental health treatment against medical advice.

When enough of the above risk factors and warning signs combine, and an individual’s typical methods of dealing with mental health challenges are no longer effective, a mental health crisis often results. Assisting someone through one may be a particularly tense and daunting task. In these instances, remembering the acronym CAF may help.

C stands for “calm.” The first task to tackle during a mental health crisis involves attempting to bring a sense of calm—to yourself, the person in crisis, and the environment. The goal is to decrease the emotional, behavioral, and mental stress levels of a situation so you and the person can begin to problem-solve. Accomplish this by using a lower tone of voice than the person in crisis, having a relaxed stance, and attempting to present yourself as a calming influence.

Use active listening skills, such as validating the other person’s feelings, nodding along while he or she is speaking, and restating what they’re saying or feeling. For example, “If I hear you right, you feel….” It may also be helpful to coach them in physically calming techniques, such as focusing on their breathing or feeling and focusing on a comfortable object such as a blanket or pillow. Once you feel they are in a place where you can help them problem-solve, you may move on to the next stage.

A is for “assess.” This stage involves assessing individuals’ immediate needs and how you may help them out of their crisis. Since mental health crises are often of short duration, it helps to focus on specific, realistic short-term goals. Refer to the acronym SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relatable, and important) to help with goal-setting. You and the individual should agree on an overall goal for your interaction; e.g., “I want to help you get to tomorrow safely. Is that something we can do together?” or “What can I do for you today to make our time together worthwhile?” It helps to ask if they have a specific drink or food they’d like or find soothing or a particular scent or song that helps them relax.

F stands for “facilitate and foster hope.” This stage involves aiding individuals in meeting the needs discussed during the A for access stage. This can involve calling emergency services to take them to a hospital, contacting a mental health provider to schedule an appointment, contacting a friend or other supportive individual for help, or creating a safety plan. It may also include helping them find a place to stay, making their environment safer by removing dangerous items such as knives or firearms, or adding soothing objects or music.

The bottom line should be: to ensure that they’re leaving the crisis with a renewed sense of confidence and hope and that they have something they can look forward to that creates a sense of safety and stability. It may be helpful to ask them to contact you the next day so that you can check in with them and see how they’re doing, or ask them if it would be helpful to think about “taking it one day at a time.” If this is a helpful thought for them, encourage them to indeed “take it one day at a time,” but also do their best each day to identify something to look forward to or a reason for hope. How people imagine their future can significantly influence their ability to overcome their mental health challenges and come out on the other side of a crisis.

I hope that the above information is useful when helping someone through a mental health emergency. It’s essential to be prepared and keep mental health first aid care for yourself and your loved ones in mind during Mental Health Awareness Month and year-round.

If you or someone you know experiences mental health issues, it is important to seek help from a qualified professional. Our Resource Specialist can help you find expert mental health resources to recover in your community. Contact us now for more information on this free service to our users.

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About the Author: Christopher Krueger graduated with a Master’s Degree in Counseling Psychology in 2017 and worked as an outpatient mental health therapist and substance abuse therapist. Christopher currently works as a behavioral health crisis intervention therapist for Baltimore Crisis Response, which operates a mobile crisis team hotline: 410 433-5175.

May Is Mental Health Month 2022

“Back to Basics”

May is Mental Health Month, a time to spread public awareness and education about mental health disorders and reflect on the impact of mental illness on individuals and their families.

The theme of this year’s Mental Health Month is “Back to Basics.” The goal this May is to provide foundational knowledge about mental health and mental health conditions and spread information about what people can do if their mental health is a cause for concern.

It is also a time to recognize and commit to changing the racial and economic inequities in our health care system, particularly with respect to mental health.

www.rtor.org and Laurel House are committed to the advancement of racial equity and social justice, and to making mental health services accessible to all.

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The opinions and views expressed in any guest blog post do not necessarily reflect those of www.rtor.org or its sponsor, Laurel House, Inc. The author and www.rtor.org have no affiliations with any products or services mentioned in the article or linked to therein. Guest Authors may have affiliations to products mentioned or linked to in their author bios.

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