How to handle a mental health emergency

Friends and family learning to cope with a loved one recently diagnosed with a disorder will naturally want to educate themselves on the condition. Of course, this allows for a better understanding of the individual and the opportunity to assist the patient in appropriately helpful ways. However, there may be more extreme instances when professional assistance is immediately required. Such occurrences will often constitute a mental health emergency and it’s important to know when and how to respond accordingly.

The most obvious mental health emergencies take place when a person is making threats of suicide or is in the process of making a suicide attempt. Threats of suicide should always be taken seriously. Another less common instance is when the person makes violent threats to another individual. According to the Psychiatric Times article “Assessing Violence in Patients” by Ben Molbert, M.D. and James C. Beck, M.D., this can occur when a patient is in a psychotic state or is experiencing a visual or audio hallucination. Such a state may be induced by hallucinogenic drugs, paranoia or severe agitation. The patient may be neglecting his or her basic needs, such as eating and sleeping. Drug or alcohol consumption could contribute to extreme impairment or a potential overdose. The sudden disappearance of a patient is also cause for alarm.

If a loved one is prone to acts of violence or creates danger for others with little warning, then taking these precautions is a must. Preparing for a potential emergency may include removing items from the home that the patient can use as a weapon. Try to have at least two people around the patient to respond to emergencies. That way, if an emergency does take place and someone is harmed, the other person can contact emergency services. If a patient is prone to violence or harming others, take the time to learn some basic self-defense techniques. This could help defuse such a situation and prevent it from escalating.

When a mental health emergency takes place, those close to the patient may not be sure who to turn to. The patient’s friends and family may attempt to reach a psychiatrist or psychologist in order to schedule an emergency appointment. However, these professionals are often not equipped to handle such emergencies in their office. The caller may instead receive a recorded message advising friends and family to take the patient to an emergency room as soon as possible.

Emergency services and related precautions

In such cases, it is clear that a person in a deeply distressed state of mind may not agree to accompany others to get the help they need. In this case, the caller will need to contact emergency services and inform them of the danger. Both police and an EMT ambulance will respond to the scene. These professionals will determine whether the patient needs to be transferred to a hospital for medical attention. At this time, it is important for everyone to remain calm and to speak in a normal, reasonable tone to avoid agitating the patient further. If agitation does occur, take the patient to an area away from the group. Be as simple and clear as possible, asking one question at a time. Show empathy and don’t interrupt or be condescending.

Receiving medical attention and recovery

If medical attention is needed, the patient will be taken to an emergency room for further evaluation and will eventually be moved to a psychiatric hospital to receive medication as well as treatment. According to Allan Schwartz, Ph.D., treatment typically includes group therapy and meetings with a psychiatrist. Once he or she has recovered sufficiently, the patient will return home with medication and will be notified of opportunities for further treatment. This will be a time for the patient to adjust to a familiar environment using the coping skills they have learned during their psychiatric stay. The support of loved ones will be crucial at this time.

Any household can take steps to be better equipped for a mental health emergency. One may choose to take a proactive and preparatory approach. One method is to keep a list of 24-hour emergency care numbers. Keep as much of the patient’s personal information on hand so that it is readily presented as needed. One should include details such as the patient’s name, date of birth and address. The medical professional can specify their psychiatric diagnosis, present medications, symptoms and age at diagnosis. Mention any allergies he or she has, along with previous hospitalizations and arrests. Also note any physical characteristics and emergency contacts that should be used as needed by professionals.

Being prepared never hurts; only when a situation arises does the pain of reality truly hit home. Although a mental health emergency can be traumatic for all parties involved, being prepared can only help resolve the situation. Preparation can lessen the shock of a potentially stressful scenario. Hopefully this day will never come, but if it does, you’ll be ready for it.