By Make It OK-Iowa on Monday, March 2, 2020

How to help someone in a mental health crisis

If a friend, family member or co-worker is going through a mental health crisis, there are steps you can take to help.


A mental health crisis could look like suicidal thoughts and behaviors, self-injury, a panic attack, a reaction to a traumatic event or disruptive/aggressive behavior. If someone you know is experiencing this – what can you do?

Mental Health First Aid, a skills-based training course that teaches participants about mental health, recommends the following action plan:

  • Assess for risk of suicide or harm
  • Listen non-judgmentally
  • Give reassurance and information
  • Encourage appropriate professional help
  • Encourage self-help and other support  strategies

Mental Health First Aid is offered until treatment and support are received or until the crisis is resolved. The following information was provided by a Mental Health First Aid trainer in Iowa, but to learn more about the training program – including how to identify signs of a mental health crisis and get more in-depth information of specific mental illnesses – find an upcoming training course near you.

Assess for risk of suicide or harm

Here are some of the common warning signs of suicide:

  • Threatening to hurt or kill oneself
  • Seeking access to means (weapons, pills, etc.) 
  • Talking, writing, or posting on social media about death, dying, or suicide
  • Feeling hopeless, worthless or a lack of purpose
  • Acting recklessly or engaging in risky activities
  • Feeling trapped
  • Increasing alcohol or drug use
  • Withdrawing from family, friends, or society
  • Demonstrating rage and anger or seeking revenge
  • Appearing agitated or having a dramatic change in mood

Consider requesting a welfare check or asking to speak to someone else who is present, if you are speaking over the phone. If you are having this conversation in person, find a private place to talk. Never leave a suicidal person alone. 

If you identify a warning sign that a person may be suicidal, ask them directly: "Are you having thoughts of suicide?" If the answer is "Yes," use these tips to talk:

  • Let the person know you are concerned and willing to help
  • Discuss your observations with the person
  • Ask question(s) without dread
  • Do not express a negative judgment
  • Appear confident, as this can be reassuring

Remember: You are not an expert. When it doubt, refer the suicidal person to professional help. Call 911 if there is a medical emergency, including an overdose, life-threatening injury or if the person is unconscious.

LEARN MORE: Common mental illness conditions

Listen non-judgmentally

Remember to maintain an attitude of acceptance, genuineness and empathy to make the person feel respected and understood. You can also utilize nonverbal skills to show you are actively listening, including being attentive, maintaining eye contact, open body posture, being seated next to a person (rather than opposite) and not fidgeting. 

Give reassurance and information

Think about some of the conversation strategies Make It OK encourages to help make talking about mental illness more comfortable. 

Here are more tips:

  • Treat the person with respect and dignity
  • Understand that symptoms are an expression of distress or part of an illness
  • Have realistic expectations
  • Offer consistent emotional support and understanding
  • Give the person hope for recovery
  • Provide practical help
  • Offer credible information

Here are some examples of behavior and words that are not supportive. Do not:

  • Tell the person to “snap out of it”
  • Act hostile or sarcastic
  • Blame the person for symptoms
  • Adopt an over-involved or over-protective attitude
  • Nag the person to do what he or she normally would do
  • Trivialize the person’s experiences
  • Belittle or dismiss the person’s feelings
  • Speak with a patronizing tone
  • Try to “cure” the person

RELATED: Tips for talking about mental illness

Encourage appropriate professional help

Encourage the person to seek help, including doctors, psychiatrists, mental health counselors, therapy, medication or other professional support.

Encourage self-help and other support strategies

You can also suggest other self-help strategies including exercise, meditation, support groups, books based on cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), family, friends, faith, and other social networks.

Visit to chat live, text, or call and get reliable information and treatment options, and find nearby help. Or find more crisis lines and mental health resources here.

miologoMake It OK is community campaign to reduce stigma by starting conversations and increasing understanding about mental illness.  Start by learning what a mental illness really is. Then, find out what to say and not to say when someone opens up to you.  You can also help others by sharing your own story to help people know they aren’t alone. Learn more about how you can get involved at