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

September 6, 2020 Swedish Health Team

National Suicide Prevention Week is September 6 – 12

  • The COVID-19 pandemic is causing mental and emotional distress for millions of people.
  • With caring and creativity, even a physically-distanced show of support can be helpful.
  • Keep the lines of communication open to stay connected even when you can’t be together.

[2 MIN READ]

This article was updated on September 6, 2020 to reflect recent events and research updates.

Are the COVID-19 pandemic, constant stream of negative news and social unrest causing signs of mental or emotional distress in someone you care about? Maybe they’ve lost their job or had relationship issues. Maybe they’ve had a recent COVID-19 scare or become one of the millions of people who’ve been infected during the pandemic. Maybe they lost someone they loved. They’re regularly social, and their outgoing personality is now withdrawn and dismissive.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 (or gaining) 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 these symptoms could be signs of a mental health crisis and there are ways you can help. With a little caring and creativity, even a physically-distanced show of support can be invaluable to the person on its receiving end.

In recognition of National Suicide Prevention Week September 6-12, Swedish offers the following tips to help the people you care about improve their mental health.

A little help goes a long way

Even without the stressors of a global pandemic, social unrest and a strained economy, 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. 

One of the biggest challenges we have is when people are ready to get help but they hit roadblocks and stop trying. If someone is interested in getting treatment, helping them navigate that system is essential.

Professional assistance to create behavioral changes in their day to day lives can help to stop the cycle from continuing. Unfortunately, people 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 daunting, and one of the biggest challenges we have is when people are ready to get help but they hit roadblocks and stop trying. If someone is interested in getting treatment, helping them 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. Or use the expanded telehealth options at Swedish to connect virtually with someone who can help.

When your kids won’t talk to you

If you fear the challenges of living through a pandemic mean 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.

Using behavioral language can help bridge the gap and open the door for conversation, especially with kids.

Some examples of talking to teens about stress could include these questions:

  • I’ve noticed you’re not reaching out to your friends. 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 having difficulty adjusting to the uncertainty of the upcoming school year, a great resource to tap into is their teachers. Whether children are learning through distance alone or as part of a hybrid model, communicating openly with your child’s educators is key. 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, even if it’s online.”  

Although in-person contact may be limited, and teachers won’t be able to pick up as easily on body language or mood, teachers may have ideas to help keep your child engaged or ways to help you assess if there are any areas where you should be concerned. 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

Studies reported by the Centers for Disease Control show that about 40% of all respondents have had at least one adverse or mental or behavioral health condition during the COVID-19 pandemic. Although simply having mental health challenges does not indicate that a person will be a danger to themselves or anyone else, or that they need an intervention right away, as a precaution, you should consider removing access to things like guns, knives or pills. If there is an immediate crisis and you suddenly become concerned about the person’s safety — that they 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 healthcare 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)
  • Find more resources here.

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 in a loved one or feeling themselves. They can use the crisis line to get some support in advocating for the person that they are concerned about or to talk to someone if they are having issues of their own.”

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.     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.

2.     Keep engaging and keep the lines of communication open. Even physically distant connections like phone calls, Facetime and Skype can be lifelines for someone who is suffering.

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 sleep is not something that is contributing negatively to their mental health.

5.     Download a guided meditation 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.

Although many people will endure mental health issues at some point in their lives, there are effective ways to manage and overcome them—even when dealing with COVID-19 and its effects. Learn more about behavioral health and psychiatry programs at Swedish.

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If you need care, don’t delay. Learn more about your options.

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Find a doctor

The behavioral health providers at Swedish can help you develop coping strategies to address the challenges brought on by life during a pandemic. Find one by calling 1-800-SWEDISH (1-800-793-3474). Additionally, you can search for a doctor in our provider directory or use the expanded telehealth options at Swedish to connect virtually with someone who can help.

Related Resources

The pandemic may increase the risk of PTSD for some

Managing expectations when timelines are dictated by COVID-19

Is moral fatigue making you tired?

Changing the conversation on mental health for Suicide Prevention Awareness Month

Talking to teens about stress

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

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