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Navigation: Mental Illness: What is a Mental Health Crisis?, Signs of a Mental Health Crisis, What Are the Causes of a Mental Health Crisis?,How to Get Treatment for a Mental Health Crisis, How Can a Mental Health Professional Help During a Crisis?, What is a Dual Diagnosis?


It can be difficult to recognize the signs of a mental health crisis because they often vary from one person to another. That said, if you want to be ready for an emergency, you will have to recognize these signs.

Understanding what a mental health crisis is, as well as its warning signs and causes, can help you assist someone who is going through it, whether it’s a family member, a friend, or any other loved one. During a mental health crisis, a person’s behavior may prevent them from functioning in a healthy or productive way. They may even want to harm themselves or other people. And because a crisis can feel overwhelming, their situation may feel hopeless for them.

Mental health crises can occur in people without a diagnosed mental health condition, contrary to popular belief. Let’s take a closer look at mental health crises and their effects.

Mental Illness: What is a Mental Health Crisis?

A mental health crisis refers to a situation in which a person’s mental or emotional state becomes so overwhelming or destabilized that they are unable to cope with it effectively. These crises can manifest in various ways and can be triggered by a wide range of factors, including but not limited to: severe emotional distress, suicidal thoughts, psychotic symptoms, extreme aggression or agitation, severe anxiety attacks, disconnection from reality, and substance abuse issues.

Keep in mind that people may experience these effects in various levels of severity. A person may experience intense feelings of sadness, anxiety, anger, or hopelessness that are difficult to manage. Their mental health crisis may give them thoughts of self-harm or suicide. Some may act on these thoughts and engage in self-destructive behaviors.

Others experience hallucinations, seeing or hearing things that aren’t there. These delusions can be very distressing and disorienting. A person may become disoriented or lose touch with reality, experiencing confusion, disorganized thoughts, or dissociation.

During a crisis, a person may become highly agitated, aggressive, or violent, posing a risk to themselves or others.

Some people may try to keep their mental illness under control by self-medicating with drugs or alcohol. But substance abuse can exacerbate mental health problems and worsen crises, particularly if the person becomes dependent or addicted.

It’s essential to recognize that when it comes to a mental health crisis, not everyone will exhibit the same symptoms or behaviors. In any case, it is a serious situation that requires immediate attention and intervention. It’s important to seek help from mental health professionals, crisis hotlines, or emergency services when someone is in crisis or when you are experiencing a crisis yourself.

Timely support and treatment can help people navigate these challenging moments and work towards stabilizing their mental and emotional well-being.

Signs of a Mental Health Crisis

Recognizing the signs of a mental health crisis is crucial for providing support and getting your loved one the help they need. Mental health crises can manifest in various ways, and the signs may differ from person to person, but there are some common indicators to watch out for.

For example, the person may exhibit severe mood changes. Drastic shifts in mood, such as extreme agitation, anger, sadness, intense fear, aggression, frequent temper tantrums, and hopelessness are signs of a crisis.

Other behavioral changes may include a sudden loss of interest in things they used to enjoy, displays of aggression or violence, rapid speech, and incoherent thoughts. Speaking very quickly, incoherently, or having difficulty concentrating, are other indicators of a mental health crisis.

Withdrawal from social activities and other sudden changes in social behavior may also indicate a crisis. They may avoid their friends and family, increasingly becoming isolated. They may also feel overwhelmed and unable to handle everyday tasks, including their usual responsibilities.

Some people in a mental health crisis go through changes in their physical appearance and hygiene. They may exhibit sudden weight gain or loss due to changes in appetite. It is also common to experience severe insomnia or excessive sleeping, leading to disruptions in their daily routine.

You may also notice signs of psychosis such as believing in things that are not based in reality. They may even hear or see things others do not.

Some people go through intense anxiety or panic, feeling overwhelming fear or constant worry that interferes with daily tasks.

If you notice that they are engaging in the use of alcohol and drugs, or there is a noticeable increase in their intake, they may be using it to cope with their emotional problems.

Also watch out for signs of self-harm or suicidal thoughts like expressing thoughts of self-harm or suicide, engaging in self-harming behaviors, or giving away possessions.

A mental health crisis can be acute or chronic, and it may escalate rapidly or develop over time. The good news is that there are plenty of treatment programs out there that offer confidential support to persons seeking treatment.

If you or someone you know is experiencing signs of a mental health crisis, call your primary care doctor, call for emergency services, or seek out a confidential and anonymous resource such as a mental health crisis helpline.

What Are the Causes of a Mental Health Crisis?

A mental health crisis can have a variety of causes, and it’s often the result of a complex interplay of multiple factors. Mental health crises can affect anyone, regardless of age, gender, or background.

Similar with substance use disorders, mental health crises are often influenced by genetic and biological factors. A family history of mental health disorders can increase the risk of developing similar conditions. Additionally, imbalances in neurotransmitters and brain structure can lead to mental health issues.

However, there are also plenty of environmental factors at play here. Stressors such as past trauma, chronic stress, and grief can lead to mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, etc. Substance abuse, social isolation, loneliness, and chronic illness can also take a toll on a person’s mental well-being.

Certain people are also more likely to develop a mental health crisis based on their personality traits and coping skills. For example, certain personality traits, such as perfectionism or low self-esteem, can make individuals more vulnerable. Those with poor coping mechanisms or a lack of effective coping strategies are also at increased risk of a crisis.

Other social factors include adverse childhood experiences, witnessing violence, major life changes, discrimination, stigma, and limited access to care are all risk factors for mental health crises.

Finally, financial factors such as economic instability, poverty, and financial hardship can lead to stress and anxiety, affecting a person’s mental health.

The causes of a mental health crisis can be interconnected, and what triggers a crisis for one person may not necessarily apply to somebody else.

Additionally, mental health crises vary in severity, from temporary distress to severe conditions like suicidal ideation or psychosis. Regardless of its causes and its current severity, early intervention, appropriate treatment, and a supportive environment can make a significant difference in helping individuals recover from a mental health crisis.

How to Get Treatment for a Mental Health Crisis

It’s crucial to remember that if you or someone you know is in immediate danger or experiencing a life-threatening crisis, you should call emergency services or go to the nearest emergency room right away. Here are some steps to consider when seeking help for a mental health crisis:

Recognize the Signs: Refer to our list above. Just keep in mind that this is not an exhaustive list of all possible mental health symptoms and warning signs. But the most common signs are severe mood swings, intense anxiety or panic attacks, suicidal thoughts or behaviors, self-harm, psychosis, or severe changes in behavior or thinking.

Contact a Crisis Helpline: Reach out to a crisis hotline. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255).

Support Services: There are many other services and support systems that can help a person who is experiencing emotional distress, such as hotlines, online chat services, support forums, and even text-based support. These resources are designed to provide assistance while maintaining the utmost privacy and anonymity for the person seeking help. Online forums and communities that focus on mental health provide a space for people to share their experiences and seek advice anonymously.

Seek Professional Help: Contact a mental health professional. If you have a therapist or psychiatrist, reach out to them immediately. If you don’t have one, consider contacting a mental health clinic, counselor, or psychiatrist in your area.

Go to the Nearest Emergency Room: If the crisis is severe or if there’s an immediate risk to safety, don’t hesitate to go to the nearest emergency room. They can provide immediate care and assessment.

Reach Out to Friends and Family: Talk to trusted friends or family members who can provide support. Sometimes, just having someone to listen can make a significant difference.

Develop a Safety Plan: If you’re not in immediate danger but need help, work with a mental health professional to create a safety plan. This plan may involve identifying triggers, coping strategies, and people you can contact during difficult times.

Consider Medication: In some cases, medication may be prescribed to help manage symptoms during a crisis. Consult with a psychiatrist for proper evaluation and prescription.

Stay Connected: Isolation can worsen a crisis. Stay connected with your support system, whether it’s through friends, family, or support groups.

Practice Self-Care: Engage in self-care activities that help reduce stress and anxiety, such as deep breathing exercises, meditation, or mindfulness techniques.

Follow-Up Care: After the immediate crisis is managed, it’s essential to continue with follow-up care. Regular therapy sessions, medication management, and ongoing support can help prevent future crises.

For veterans, the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) plays a critical role in addressing mental health crises among veterans. The VA provides a comprehensive range of mental health services to veterans, including therapy, counseling, medication management, and crisis intervention.

Remember that seeking help is a sign of strength, not weakness. Mental health crises can happen to anyone, and timely intervention can make a significant difference in the outcome. Don’t hesitate to reach out to professionals and support networks when needed.

How Can a Mental Health Professional Help During a Crisis?

A mental health professional can play a crucial role in helping individuals during a crisis. Their training and expertise enable them to provide appropriate support, guidance, and interventions to promote emotional well-being and safety.

For starters, they can assess the patient’s mental and emotional state to understand the nature and severity of the crisis. This assessment helps in determining the most appropriate course of action.

Mental health professionals are trained in crisis intervention techniques like de-escalation, active listening, and empathy. One of the primary roles of mental health professionals is to provide emotional support. They can help your loved one manage their overwhelming emotions and thoughts during a crisis, creating a safe and non-judgmental space for them to express their feelings and concerns.

If the crisis involves thoughts of self-harm or harm to others, the mental health professional can develop safety plans to reduce that risk. They can teach healthy coping strategies and even help the person build a support network.

Also, if necessary, mental health professionals can provide referrals to other healthcare providers or resources, such as inpatient treatment facilities, crisis hotlines, or community support organizations. This is for more long-term support and intensive care. Mental health professionals can work in collaboration with other healthcare providers to provide holistic care during crisis management.

Mental health professionals may sometimes prescribe and manage medications to help patients stabilize their symptoms during a crisis. Then after the crisis is resolved or stabilized, they can provide ongoing therapy and support to address underlying issues and prevent future crises.

Mental health professionals can also offer guidance and support to family members and caregivers of individuals in crisis, helping them better understand and cope with the situation.

What is a Dual Diagnosis?

Dual diagnosis, also known as co-occurring disorders or comorbidity, refers to the presence of two or more distinct mental health or substance use disorders in an individual simultaneously. These conditions can interact and complicate each other, making diagnosis and treatment more challenging.

Typically, dual diagnosis involves a combination of a mental health disorder and a substance use disorder (SUD).

Mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia often co-occur with substance use disorder. This puts the person at risk of developing addiction or drug dependence. This is because of self-medication: the person turns to harmful substances to cope with their condition, not realizing that it is only worsening their problem.

Dual diagnosis is challenging to treat because both conditions must be addressed simultaneously to achieve a successful recovery. If one condition is left untreated, it can exacerbate the other. Treatment often involves a combination of therapies, medications, and support services, and it should be tailored to the individual’s specific needs.

Most dual diagnosis treatment programs offer integrated treatment. This approach combines mental health and substance abuse treatment into a single, coordinated program. It may involve individual therapy, group therapy, medication management, and counseling.

Look for a rehab near you today if you or someone you love is experiencing substance use disorder or a mental health crisis.

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Fel Clinical Director of Content
Felisa Laboro has been working with addiction and substance abuse businesses since early 2014. She has authored and published over 1,000 articles in the space. As a result of her work, over 1,500 people have been able to find treatment. She is passionate about helping people break free from alcohol or drug addiction and living a healthy life.

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