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Mental Health First Aid: How to Help Someone in Crisis

Odds are that you have a first aid kit somewhere in your home. In it, you'll find bandages, gauze, hydrogen peroxide, and other things you might need in an emergency medical situation. But what if the health emergency is mental or emotional instead of physical? Mental health first aid — emergency care for someone's emotional and mental well-being — can save lives, but it can't be provided with a box of medical supplies.

Fortunately, you turn yourself into a mental health first aid kit. By becoming familiar with the warning signs, strategies, and resources to respond to a mental health emergency, you can provide potentially life-saving aid to others in a time of need.

Signs That Someone Is in Crisis

Figuring out if a friend or family member needs mental health first aid can be a challenge, but there are warning signs that can tip you off. These include:

  • speaking of self-harm or a wish to die
  • a recent traumatic experience
  • mood swings
  • a change in personality
  • withdrawing from life
  • expressing a feeling of hopelessness
  • sleeping too much or not enough
  • seeing things that are not there or hearing voices
  • reckless behavior
  • exhibiting extreme anxiety or paranoia

What to Do

Mental health first aid courses teach these steps for assisting someone in crisis:

  • Assess the risk of suicide or self-harm. Call 800-273-TALK (8255) or 911 for help if you think the person is in danger.

  • Listen without judgment.
  • Give reassurance that they can get help and feel better.
  • Encourage them to get the help they need.
  • Encourage self-help and self-care.

If You Think There's a Risk of Suicide

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides this advice on how to help someone who is suicidal while you wait for help to arrive:

  • Be direct. You might worry that mentioning suicide could reinforce the thought or give them ideas, but this isn't true. Often, people in crisis want to tell someone, but are having trouble broaching the subject. They often feel relieved to be asked about it.
  • Keep them safe. If they are thinking about suicide, find out if they've gone so far as to make a plan. Restrict their access to weapons and other dangerous items.
  • Be there. Physical presence is important here, but it's not always possible. If you encounter this situation while speaking on the phone with someone, keep them on the phone as long as you can. A sense of connection with someone else can be lifesaving.
  • Help them stay connected. After the crisis has passed, staying connected with others is crucial for helping to prevent a relapse. Be there for them yourself, but also help them find connections with others. Helping them build a wider support network will help with their long-term mental health.
  • Follow up. Check in on them from time to time. You may not have to become their best friend, but call or send an email just to let them know you're thinking about them. This can go a long way toward sustaining the sense of connection that is so crucial for mental health and recovery.

How to Get Help

A mental health crisis can be terrifying, both for the person experiencing it and the person who is trying to help them. But if you can get through the crisis and get help, these issues can get better with treatment. By providing effective mental health first aid, you can give hope to someone in need — and maybe even save a life.

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