What is a mental health crisis, and how do you deal with one?

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), the best definition of a mental health crisis is ‘any situation in which a person’s behavior puts them at risk of hurting themselves or others and/or prevents them from being able to care for themselves or function effectively in the community.’

When a mental health crisis occurs, friends and family are often caught off-guard, unprepared, and unsure of what to do. The behaviors of a person experiencing a crisis can be unpredictable and can change dramatically without warning.

If you feel like something isn’t right, talk with your loved one and voice your concern. If necessary, take action to get services for them and support for yourself.

It’s important to understand that warning signs are not always present when a mental health crisis occurs. Common actions that may indicate when a mental health crisis is developing include:

  • Inability to perform daily tasks like bathing, brushing teeth, brushing hair, changing clothes
  • Rapid mood swings, increased energy level, inability to stay still, pacing; suddenly depressed, withdrawn; suddenly happy or calm
    after a period of depression
  • Increased agitation verbal threats, violent, out-of-control behavior, destroys property
  • Abusive behavior to self and others, including substance use or self-harm (cutting)
  • Isolation from school, work, family, friends
  • Loses touch with reality (psychosis) – unable to recognize family or friends, confused, strange ideas, thinks they’re someone they’re not, doesn’t understand what people are saying, hears voices, sees things that aren’t there
  • Paranoia

A person experiencing a mental health crisis can’t always communicate their thoughts, feelings, needs, or emotions clearly. They may also find it difficult to understand what others are saying. It’s important to empathize and connect with the person’s feelings, stay calm, and try to de-escalate the situation.

Techniques that May Help De-escalate a Crisis:
  • Keep your voice calm
  • Avoid overreacting
  • Listen to the person
  • Express support and concern
  • Avoid continuous eye contact
  • Ask how you can help
  • Keep stimulation level low
  • Move slowly
  • Offer options instead of trying to take control
  • Avoid touching the person unless you ask permission
  • Be patient
  • Gently announce actions before initiating them
  • Give them space – don’t make them feel trapped

Do not make judgmental comments

Do not argue or try to reason with the person

If you can’t de-escalate the situation yourself, you can seek additional help from mental health professionals who can assess the situation, and determine the level of crisis intervention necessary.

If you don’t believe there is an immediate danger, call a psychiatrist, clinic nurse, therapist, case manager, or family physician who is familiar with the person’s history. This professional can help assess the situation and offer advice including obtaining an appointment or admitting the person to the hospital if necessary. If you can’t reach someone and the situation worsens, consider calling your county mental health crisis unit, crisis response team, or other similar contacts.

Law Enforcement Involvement

If the situation is life-threatening or if serious property damage is occurring, don’t hesitate to call 911 and ask for immediate assistance. When you call 911, tell them someone is experiencing a mental health crisis and explain the nature of the emergency, your relationship to the person in crisis, and whether there are weapons involved.

If the person has no history of violent acts, be sure to point this out. Share the facts efficiently and objectively, and let the officer decide the course of action.

You can request and encourage the officers to view the situation as a mental health crisis. However, once 911 is called and law enforcement arrives, they will determine if a crime has occurred. Law enforcement can, and often will, call mental health resources in your community. Nearby supports and services may assist in deciding what options are available and appropriate.

It’s important to remember that crisis services are meant to help people with symptoms of mental illness get the help they need in the safest setting possible.

Crisis Plan

A good plan of action to help navigate any future situations would be to create a mental health crisis plan. This plan would be created before any crisis occurs. This plan will let any support system know what to do when an emergency arises. Anyone can create a crisis plan by putting together a list of resources, information, and directions.

We will go in-depth on creating a crisis plan in a future article.

If you or a loved one is experiencing a mental health crisis – Call 988

If you or a loved one is in immediate physical danger – Call 911


Iroquois Center Resource Page – https://www.irqcenter.com/resources/

988 – https://988lifeline.org/

Nami – https://namikansas.org/

KDADS – https://kdads.ks.gov/kdads-commissions/behavioral-health

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