How to Spot and Help Someone Going Through a Mental Health Crisis

Julie Bitely

| 3 min read

Man in suit comforting a male colleague.
Would you know the signs if a friend or loved one was experiencing a mental health crisis? More importantly, would you know what to do to help?
With one in five adults experiencing a mental illness in any given year, we need to talk about mental health, including symptoms for crisis behavior that you might not be aware of. Experts rate mental disorders among the most disabling of illnesses because of their ability to disrupt a person’s life in many ways, including work, relationships and personal care.
Spotting a Crisis
A mental health crisis isn’t always easy to spot and can look different depending on a person’s age, personality or life circumstances. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), some common warning signs can include:
  • An inability to handle daily tasks, including basic personal care
  • Rapid mood swings that seem to come out of nowhere
  • Agitation, which could include violent behavior
  • Harming self or others
  • Isolating behavior
  • Losing touch with reality
  • Paranoia
Warning signs of suicide include:
  • Giving away possessions
  • Saying goodbyes with a sense of finality
  • Stockpiling drugs or securing a weapon
  • Obsession with death
  • Dramatic changes in mood or behavior
  • Increasing alcohol or drug use
  • A sense of hopelessness
  • Withdrawing from people and activities
How to Help
If you’re concerned that a friend, family member or co-worker is experiencing a mental health crisis, it’s important to reach out. You might think bringing up someone’s mental health status could embarrass them or potentially make the situation worse. Talking could help them seek treatment or even save their life.
Here’s how to offer mental health first aid in a positive, nurturing way, according to the American Psychological Association.
  • Have the conversation. Speak in a supportive and non-judgmental way and try to assess how serious the situation might be.
  • Encourage professional help. Therapy and medication can be life-changing. If the person in crisis isn’t open to seeing a mental health professional, suggest that they schedule an appointment with their primary care physician, who might be able to give them the push they need to seek additional help and validate that mental illness is just as treatable as physical illnesses.
  • Act if there’s a threat of harm. If a person is considering suicide or is talking about harming others, it’s best to act on their behalf, even if they don’t want help. If there’s immediate danger, call 911. If danger doesn’t seem imminent, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK. Remove any means someone could use to harm themselves such as medications or firearms. Stay with the person until you can get outside assistance or take them to an emergency room if you can’t physically handle the situation.
A myth persists that talking about mental health can trigger people who are struggling to get worse. This is false. Recognizing the signs of someone experiencing a mental health crisis and taking the appropriate steps, which includes talking about it in a helpful, thoughtful way, can save lives.
Have you ever experienced a mental health crisis? How were people’s responses helpful or hurtful? Share your tips in the comments.
If you found this post helpful, you might also like:
Photo credit: trumzz

A Healthier Michigan is sponsored by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, a nonprofit, independent licensee of the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association.
No Personal Healthcare Advice or Other Advice
This Web site provides general educational information on health-related issues and provides access to health-related resources for the convenience of our users. This site and its health-related information and resources are not a substitute for professional medical advice or for the care that patients receive from their physicians or other health care providers.
This site and its health-related information resources are not meant to be the practice of medicine, the practice of nursing, or to carry out any professional health care advice or service in the state where you live. Nothing in this Web site is to be used for medical or nursing diagnosis or professional treatment.
Always seek the advice of your physician or other licensed health care provider. Always consult your health care provider before beginning any new treatment, or if you have any questions regarding a health condition. You should not disregard medical advice, or delay seeking medical advice, because of something you read in this site.