How to help someone in the midst of a mental health crisis

May 29, 2018

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Someone you care about has had a significant life event — their parents are getting divorced, they lost their job, had a breakup, or perhaps they were assaulted or had a traumatic incident — and you worry about them. They’re regularly social, and their outgoing personality is now withdrawn and dismissive. They no longer want to talk to their friends, or they are losing weight unintentionally. They become more irritable and continue to verbalize how stressed or tired they are. You see all of this and you want to help, but you don’t know how. 

Jennifer O’Donnell, PsyD, the Clinical Program Director for Swedish Primary Care Integrated Behavioral Health, says that these actions could be signs of a mental health crisis and there are ways that you can help. 

A little help goes a long way

When your loved one is depressed, they tend to withdraw. When they withdraw, they feel more isolated. When they feel isolated, they become more depressed. This cycle is a vicious one and can spiral out of control if not treated properly. 

Professional assistance to create behavioral changes in their day to day lives can help to stop the cycle from continuing. Unfortunately, individuals going through depression or other mental health issues may be unable to find the help they need. Dr. O’Donnell explains that “the mental help system can be very daunting, and one of the biggest challenges we have is when people are ready to get help but they hit road blocks and stop trying. If someone is interested in getting treatment, helping them to navigate that system is essential.” Consider scheduling an appointment with a primary care physician to help start the process of connecting to a behavioral health provider.

But they won’t talk to me

If you fear that your son or daughter may be heading towards a mental health crisis, the key to helping them open up is to keep open lines of communication without scaring them with direct questions like, “Are you depressed?” Dr. O’Donnell explains that using behavioral language can help bridge the gap and open the door for conversation. Some examples of these questions might be: 
• I’ve noticed you’re not spending as much time with Callie. Everything okay?
• Your grades have been dropping recently. Is there something going on? 
• I’ve noticed that you haven’t been sleeping well. Is there something that’s been bothering you? 

If you are worried that your child is being  bullied at school or online, a great resource to tap into is their teachers. Dr. O’Donnell encourages parents to “not merely ask teachers about their child’s academic performance but also about their interpersonal relationships and what the teacher observes in and out of class.” It is important to ask teachers questions like, “Have you noticed anything in regards to my child’s communication or relationships with other students?” These questions can give you insight into other parts of your child’s life that may help in discerning whether or not they need mental health help.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help

One in every two people are challenged with a mental health concern at some time in their lives, experiencing anything from a temporary case of the blues to anxiety or depression. So, simply having challenges relating to mental health does not indicate that a person is going to be a danger to anyone else or that they need an intervention right away. As a precaution, you should consider removing access things that they can use to hurt themselves, like guns, knives or pill. And, if there is an immediate crisis and you are concerned about the person’s safety — that the person might hurt themselves or someone else — then those are situations to contact the crisis line and potentially help facilitate getting an evaluation from an emergency department. 

What to do in an emergency: 

  • Call your health care provider and tell them it is urgent
  • Call 9-1-1
  • Go to the emergency department at your local hospital
  • Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255)
  • Call the King County 24-hour Crisis Line 1-866-427-4747 or visit crisisclinic.org

Dr. O’Donnell says that the crisis line doesn’t need to be reserved as a last resort. “It’s a really great resource for anyone to reach out and talk through what they are seeing. They can use the crisis line to get some support in advocating for the person that they are concerned about.”

What can I do now?

If you or a loved one feel like they might be slipping into a mental health crisis, there are a few techniques that could help while you search for assistance.
  1. Identify something that used to bring you joy, even if it doesn’t bring you pleasure right now and do it. Dr. O’Donnell says, “Go to trivia night. You don’t have to stay. Just put in on your schedule and go. Most individuals find that once they get over the fear or unease about not wanting to go, they tend to start feeling better and engaging.”
  2. Download a guided mediation app. There are plenty out there and getting connected with the here and now can help distract you from your worries and re-engage in the present moment.
  3. Try and recognize what you are grateful for. Try to identify one or two things that you are grateful for each day. You can really help to shift your mind set and lift the fog.
  4. SLEEP. Sleep is highly correlated to our mood. Dr. O’Donnell works with a majority of patients on establishing healthy sleep habits in order to make sure that that sleep is not something that is contributing negatively to their mental health state.
  5. Don’t give up. Depression and anxiety make people want to isolate and push people away. Remind them that they are loved and cared for.
  6. Keep engaging and keep the lines of communication open.

Although many people will endure mental health issues at some point in their lives, there are effective ways to manage and overcome them. Learn more about behavioral health and psychiatry programs at Swedish.

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.


Topics: Kids, Men, Services, Wellness