Author: Abby Poplis, LCSW, (she/hers), Director of Adult Programming, Compass Health Center – Oak Brook  


Mental health challenges affect millions of individuals every year, making it crucial to prepare ourselves with the knowledge and tools to handle mental health crises effectively. 1 out of every 2 people worldwide will develop a mental health disorder in their lifetime (Harvard Medical School). Mental illness impacts our friends, family, loved ones, and colleagues. So, when a mental health crisis does strike, what do we do? Early intervention is pivotal in limiting the duration and impact of a crisis. When we can identify symptoms and intervene early, we often prevent the development of more serious symptoms. This can minimize the duration and acuity of symptoms, the impact the mental health crisis has on an individual, and the treatment that the individual will need.  

Whether you're personally experiencing a crisis or supporting a loved one through it, knowing how to navigate these situations can make a significant difference. In this blog, we'll explore the practical steps and resources to help you effectively manage a mental health crisis with compassion and confidence. 


Understanding Mental Health Crisis  

Let’s start by defining “mental health crisis.” As defined by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), “A mental health crisis is any situation in which a person's behavior puts them at risk of hurting themselves or others and/or prevents them from being able to care for themselves or function effectively in the community.” Mental health crises can take many different forms. Recognizing the signs of a crisis is essential for early intervention.  

Warning signs and symptoms that could indicate someone is struggling with their mental health include: 

  • Change in sleep (increase or decrease) 
  • Change in appetite/food consumption 
  • Isolating from friends, family or other social supports 
  • Overuse of substances  
  • Thinking about harming self or others 
  • Inability to carry out daily activities 
  • Disconnection from reality (ex: false beliefs, hearing voices, seeing things
Warning signs and symptoms that could indicate someone is struggling


Tips for Handling a Mental Health Crisis 

Preparing for mental health crisis can help us to intervene early and effectively. When we have loved ones who have a history of mental illness, it can be helpful to proactively create a plan. This can include identifying their triggers, red flags or warning signs, creating a plan for how to intervene, and identifying who can be of support. You can work with your loved one to identify what next steps of support would look like. It is important to have a “crisis support team that includes both personal and professional supports. 


Recognizing Warning Signs  

Early intervention is paramount in managing a mental health crisis effectively. Recognizing warning signs can help identify when a crisis may be imminent, allowing for prompt intervention. Some common warning signs include changes in sleep patterns, appetite disturbances, social withdrawal, substance misuse, and thoughts of self-harm or suicide. It's essential to pay attention to these signs and take appropriate action when they arise. 


Creating a Crisis Support Plan  

Preparing for a mental health crisis involves developing a crisis support plan tailored to the individual's needs. This plan should identify triggers, warning signs, and strategies for intervention. Collaborating with the individual to create this plan ensures that their preferences and needs are taken into account and increases the likelihood that they will follow through with the support plan when needed. Additionally, assembling a crisis support team comprising both personal and professional supports can provide a comprehensive network of assistance. 


Developing a Support Plan for Mental Health Crises    

  1. Identify Triggers: Work with the person proactively when they are not actively in crisis to identify triggers or situations that may exacerbate their symptoms. Understanding these triggers can help prevent or mitigate future crises.
  2. Develop Coping Strategies: Collaborate with the person to develop coping strategies that they can use when experiencing distressing symptoms. These strategies may include deep breathing exercises, mindfulness techniques, or engaging in activities that promote relaxation.
  3. Create a Support Network: Establish a support network comprised of friends, family members, and mental health professionals who can provide assistance and support during a crisis. Ensure that everyone in the support network is aware of the crisis support plan and their role in implementing it.
  4. Access Resources: Familiarize yourself with local resources and support services available for individuals experiencing mental health crises. This may include crisis hotlines, community mental health centers, or emergency psychiatric services. 


Staying Calm and Ensuring Safety 

In order to mitigate crises, we want to attempt to intervene early, as soon as symptoms increase. It is important to remain calm to stay focused and effectively support the individual in distress. Prioritizing safety is essential, and if there’s an imminent concern for the person's safety or the safety of others, contacting professional services for immediate care is necessary. A place like Compass Health Center can help provide an immediate mental health assessment to help you assess what level of support is necessary. If needed, you will be directed to call 911 or go to the nearest emergency department. Emergency departments are also equipped to assess and provide appropriate care for individuals experiencing mental health crises. Here are four practical tips for responding to a loved one's mental health crisis: 

  1. Stay Calm: In the midst of a crisis, it's helpful to remain calm and focused. Keeping a level head will enable you to provide effective support and assistance to the person in crisis.
  2. Supporting Through De-escalation: Supporting someone in crisis often involves employing de-escalation techniques to help them regain a sense of calm and stability. These techniques may include guided relaxation exercises, deep breathing exercises, mindfulness techniques, or engaging in activities that promote relaxation and distraction.
  3. Prioritize Safety: Safety should always be the top priority during a mental health crisis. If you're concerned about the person's safety or the safety of others, contact emergency services immediately by calling 911 or take the individual to the nearest Emergency Department. 
  4. Listen and Validate: Active listening and validation are crucial components of supporting someone in crisis. Allow the person to express their feelings and emotions without judgment, and validate their experiences.
  5. Offer Reassurance: Provide reassurance and comfort to the person in crisis. Let them know that they are not alone and that help is available. Reassure them that their feelings are valid and that they will get through this difficult time.
  6. Setting Boundaries and Seeking Professional Help: While offering emotional support is crucial, it's equally important to establish healthy boundaries and encourage professional intervention when necessary. Setting boundaries ensures that both parties maintain their well-being and prevents caregiver burnout. Encouraging the individual to seek professional help, such as therapy or psychiatric evaluation, can facilitate access to specialized care and treatment tailored to their needs. 


Accessing Immediate Care 

Accessing immediate care is vital during a mental health crisis. A place like Compass Health Center can help provide an immediate mental health assessment to help you assess whether one of our program could be helpful in support your or your loved one, or whether call 911 or going to the nearest emergency department is necessary.  

Compass Health Center’s partial hospitalization (PHP) and intensive outpatient programs provide comprehensive care for individuals experiencing persistent symptoms without immediate danger. Our programs are age-based and provide specialized clinical support for individuals (ages 5+) who require more comprehensive treatment than traditional outpatient therapy but do not require inpatient hospitalization or residential care. Our multidisciplinary treatment model includes group therapy, individual therapy, family therapy, psychiatry, medication management, nursing, educational support, transition management, and discharge planning. Intermediate care at Compass Health Center often serves as the solution for a family or individual in crisis without the need to enter an emergency room. However, if there's an imminent threat to safety, taking the individual to the nearest Emergency Department for assessment is recommended. 


Exploring Different Levels of Care

Mental health care offers a diverse range of options tailored to individual needs. While the abundance of choices might seem overwhelming, understanding the continuum of care provides hope and empowerment. This continuum resembles a ladder, with each step addressing varying levels of mental health needs. Here's a brief overview of the six levels of mental health care: 

  1. Outpatient Treatment 
  2. Intensive Outpatient Programs (IOP) 
  3. Partial Hospitalization Programs (PHP) or "Day Programs" 
  4. Emergency Room Evaluation 
  5. Inpatient Treatment 
  6. Residential Treatment 

Prioritizing self-care: Two people talking, drinking coffee

Prioritizing Self-Care for Caregivers

Supporting a loved one through a mental health crisis can be emotionally taxing, highlighting the importance of self-care for caregivers. Prioritizing one's own well-being ensures that caregivers remain resilient and able to provide effective support. Engaging in activities that promote relaxation, seeking support from peers or mental health professionals, and setting aside time for self-care are essential practices for caregivers. Tia Walker, the co-author of The Inspired Caregiver highlights, “caregiving often calls us to lean into love we didn’t know possible.” This love is incredible, though it also creates a need for supports and caregivers to care for themselves in new ways. This could look like debriefing and processing the experience or following up with your own ongoing treatment. An analogy that resonates with me is: self-care is a lot like the oxygen masks on air planes: if you don’t put your mask on first, you aren’t going to be able to help the person sitting next to you. Similarly, if we don’t care for ourselves, we are not able to care for others.  


Utilizing Crisis Resources 

In times of crisis, additional resources are available to provide support and guidance. Crisis hotlines, such as the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, offer round-the-clock assistance and can provide invaluable resources and referrals for individuals in distress. These hotlines are staffed by trained professionals who can offer support, guidance, and assistance in accessing appropriate care. 


Navigating Mental Health Crises:

Begin with Patience and Compassion, Followed by Practical Steps and Unconditional Support 

Navigating a mental health crisis requires patience, compassion, and a willingness to support and advocate for those in need. By following these practical steps and offering unconditional support, individuals and their loved ones can effectively manage crises and work towards recovery. Remember that each person's journey is unique, and it's essential to tailor interventions and support strategies to their individual needs. Together, we can create a more compassionate and supportive society where mental health crises are addressed with understanding and empathy. 

In applicable situations, Compass Health Centers directs individuals to the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. Remember, you are not alone; places like Compass Health Center, the 988 Lifeline, and medical professionals are here to help and support you through challenging times. In case of an emergency, please immediately dial 911 or proceed to the nearest emergency department.  


Seeking Help

Asking for help can feeling daunting. But when you or your loved one is ready to explore proactive strategies for managing mental health symptoms and preventing crises, we can help. Discover Compass Health Center's tailored programs offering personalized support and guidance. Take the next step toward improving your mental health and that of your loved ones by reaching out to us today. 


Further Reading: 

Which Mental Health Diagnoses are Treated at the PHP/IOP Levels of Care at Compass? 

How Do I Know Which Type of Mental Health Treatment is Right for Me? | A Clinician’s Guide to Understanding Levels of Care 

How to Ask for Mental Health Help



Practical Steps for Loved One: Mother and Daughter going to school