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.

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 and/or school performance, social isolation, increased use of drugs and/or alcohol, and loss of interest in normal 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?

Mental health emergencies can be caused by a wide range of factors. 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 loss of a job). 

Although anyone can experience a mental health crisis, some groups of people are more vulnerable than others. These include individuals with pre-existing mental health conditions, those without strong support systems or coping mechanisms, people living in crowded environments, and people who have experienced economic losses. 

How To Deescalate a Crisis

Witnessing someone in crisis can make you feel powerless and scared, and it’s important that you equip yourself with the right knowledge, skills, and resources. Particularly if that person is suicidal, your intervention could save their life. The following guidelines are a great starting point for helping someone navigate a mental health emergency:

  • 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’re able, stay with them until the crisis has passed or they’ve gotten help.

    Remember to keep your own safety in mind, too. If at any point you feel that your well-being is in danger, leave the situation.
  • Listen compassionately. In difficult situations like this, it’s normal to worry about saying the wrong thing. However, experts agree that the most important thing you can do for someone who is experiencing a crisis is to simply listen, be with them, and let them know that 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 sorts of coping strategies and self-care usually help when you’re feeling bad?
    • How can I help?
  • 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 they 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 keep these numbers saved on your phone so that 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 do call 911, be sure to give the dispatcher as much information as possible about the person’s symptoms and what they’re experiencing.
  • 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. 

The American Association of Suicidology (AAS) is dedicated to promoting the understanding and prevention of suicide, as well as providing support, hope, and healing to those who have been affected by it. AAS promotes the study of suicide as a research discipline, as well as public awareness programs, public education, and training for professionals and volunteers. AAS membership includes mental health and public health professionals, researchers, suicide prevention and crisis intervention centers, school districts, crisis center volunteers, survivors of suicide loss, attempt survivors, and a variety of laypersons who have an interest in suicide prevention. 

By joining the AAS, the largest and oldest suicide prevention membership organization in the U.S., you will be among the ranks of the world’s leading suicidologists and suicide prevention experts. Ready to join? Individual and Organizational Memberships are available!