How to Help Someone in a Mental Health Crisis

July 28, 2014
A smiling man talking to a student in his office.

Mental health issues are more common than most people think. In fact, one in four people experiences at least one mental disorder in their lifetime. Mental illnesses are more common than cancer, diabetes, and heart disease, and depression is the most common mental health problem.

Mental health occurs along a continuum. On one side of the spectrum is a state of well-being in which a person learns, grows, is resilient, builds relationships, and manages stress well. On the other side of the spectrum is a medical condition in which a person’s thoughts, feelings, mood, and functioning are disrupted or impaired. Between the two is a state in which a person experiences mild to moderate emotional problems and mild or temporary impairment.

A person’s mental health can vary throughout their life. Most people experience time-limited periods of emotional problems when they’re faced with life's challenges and stressors. Some people experience time-limited periods of mental illness. And some people live with longer-term or sustained mental illness.

It’s important to know that most people who have mental illness are not violent. It’s also important to keep in mind that anyone—anywhere on the Mental Health Continuum—can experience a crisis, or an intolerable difficulty, at any time.

So what can you do if someone in your workplace gets anxious, angry, defensive, challenging, or escalated in any way? At CPI, we teach a variety of strategies you can use to interact with escalating people with sensitivity, respect, and safety. Strategies include:

Keep yourself safe.

Just as the airlines tell us to put our own oxygen masks on before assisting others, the truth really is that you can’t help others in any situation until you help yourself.

One way to do this is to take a step back emotionally, and physically too. Try to stay calm. Know that how you react will affect the person’s behavior, and therefore the outcome. Give the person space and try to stand off to the side and at least one and a half feet away from the person. Use nonthreatening words, postures, gestures, and tones that communicate respect. Keep in mind that a person in crisis who feels safe around you and respected by you is less likely to cause harm.

If you’re a CPI Certified Instructor . . .

You can tailor your trainings to help staff handle and prevent dangerous situations from occurring with people who have mental health issues. To learn about the Challenged by Mental Illness at Work Topic Module, watch this Instructor-specific webinar. To check out the training materials for this program, log in to your account.

If you’re not a CPI Certified Instructor . . .

Watch this webinar for strategies on addressing mental health issues in your workplace. You’ll learn about the intervention skills you carry with you wherever you go—and how to use them. And please share the webinar with your friends, family, and coworkers! Together we can reduce stigma, debunk myths, and give people with mental illness the support they need.

Now I pass it over to you. What are you doing to raise awareness, stop stigma, and address concerns? Please share in the comments.

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