How to Help Someone in Crisis


During the pandemic, many people have experienced feelings of loneliness, isolation and anxiety. A recent study performed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed what we see at Emerson every day — people are stressed. More than 40 percent of the 5,000 respondents reported having mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, new or increased substance use, or thoughts of suicide, a significant increase over 2019.

At Emerson, more adolescents and adults are coming to the emergency department in crisis than before the pandemic. These patients require immediate care for behavioral health issues, including suicide ideation and attempts. “We all feel the stress of the pandemic and are aware that life has gotten harder,” explains James Evans, MD, a psychiatrist and the medical director of behavioral health services at Emerson Hospital. “Imagine the effects on someone with an underlying vulnerability. Over the past year, our patients are coming to the ED more psychotic, delusional, and depressed.”

What can we do to help people who may be in crisis? Friends, neighbors, loved ones, acquaintances, and even strangers have an important role when they witness or suspect someone is having a mental health crisis.

Warning signs for suicide include:

  • Changes in eating and sleeping habits
  • Loss of interest in regular activities
  • Withdrawal from friends and family
  • Acting-out behaviors and running away
  • Alcohol and drug use
  • Unnecessary risk-taking
  • Obsession with death and dying
  • Loss of interest in school or work
  • Lack of response to praise
  • Hearing someone say, “I want to kill myself” or give verbal hints such as, “If anything happens to me, I want you to know…”
  • Giving away cherished things
  • Writing one or more suicide notes

You can take these actions if you know someone who is experiencing one or more of the warning signs:

  • Take the person seriously
  • Involve other people — contact friends, family, and school leaders
  • Express concern
  • Listen closely
  • Acknowledge the person’s feelings
  • Offer support
  • Do not promise confidentiality
  • Do not leave the person alone
  • Keep possibly harmful objects away, including guns, medications, and sharp objects
  • Get the person to the nearest emergency department, contact a mental health professional, or call 911
  • Trust your instincts and do not worry if you might be overreacting to suspecting someone may be in crisis. The adage “better safe than sorry” applies to this situation.

The Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 800-273-8255 and is available 24/7. Keep this number handy, such as stored as a contact in your cell phone, in case it is ever needed.

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