Health professionals worldwide now teach lay people how to recognize and respond to a person showing signs of mental struggle. There is no one-size-fits-all answer for how to deal with the man raving at the telephone pole or the woman with a teetering shopping cart piled high with filth.
It helps to keep in mind that the person is struggling with a health issue that may not be visible like a broken leg, or as understood as cancer, but it is not their fault. Approach only if it feels safe and intervene appropriately. "In these high octane situations it's a challenge to use language with care, but it can really help," says Jonny Morris, of the Canadian Mental Health Association, B.C. Division. "We wouldn't think of police first if somebody had a heart attack, so keep in mind this is a ‘health’ crisis - not a crime."
It also helps to keep in focus that the person in crisis is a human who is loved by family. Here are the top 10 tips for dealing with a person in crisis:
- Listen non-judgementally.
- Speak in a calm voice.
- Refrain from touching without permission: "Can I put my hand on you to help calm you?"
- Useful things to say include: "I am concerned about you...Can I get you help?"
- Reassure the person they are heard.
- Encourage the person to seek support from resources or family or friends: "Is there anyone at home? Could we call the crisis line together?"
- Understand that mental health and substance abuse issues can cause erratic or unpredictable behavior and people suffering from a mental health emergency can exhibit a range of symptoms. People with schizophrenia sometimes have auditory or visual hallucinations. Brain injuries can cause odd behaviors, such as picking up objects and dropping them. People with panic disorders have trouble breathing.
- If you feel the person is suicidal or in distress and you must call 911, ask very specifically for what is needed: "Could you send an ambulance or paramedics. I see somebody experiencing distress or panic."
- Try not to let emotion take over. Keep descriptions accurate: "He grabbed for child scissors and cut somebody's hand who reached for them." As opposed to: "He's stabbing people ... he's trying to kill people."
- Warn emergency workers they may be dealing with a mental health crisis. It could save lives.
For more: Mental Health First Aid