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What does a mental health crisis look like? "It's a really broad term," admits Justin Michener, PhD, psychologist and Director of Program Development for Intensive Psychiatric Services at Children's Hospital Colorado.
But there are some ways to spot one — and ways to help. Just like first aid skills like CPR, mental health first aid is a toolbox for stabilizing a situation until professional help arrives. Here are the basics:
"When a person is in crisis, you'll see changes in social interaction," says child psychiatrist Jenna Glover, PhD, Director of Psychology Training at Children's Colorado. "You may notice things like withdrawing from activities, being more irritable, disruptions at work or school, or changes in performance, energy level and even interest in food."
When someone just seems off, sometimes the best way to help is simply to strike up a conversation. Checking in can offer a read on a person's general demeanor and attitude toward life — whether they have hope for the future or if they're feeling stuck. These are good indicators of a person's mental state.
Just as you wouldn't open up someone's chest and start heart surgery during CPR, you wouldn't try to solve the problem of someone in crisis. The idea is to convince them to seek help. Good listening is key.
"A lot of times people want to minimize or fix their problems," says Dr. Glover. "That further alienates people. Just being able to hear a person's pain and struggle and reflect back what you're hearing, as opposed to giving advice or trying to fix it — that's really important to stabilization."
Ideally, says Dr. Michener, a parent would recognize mental health issues early, before they develop into full-blown crises, and get a professional involved. "If I've already been seeing a kid and a crisis develops, I already know that kid. Then I can assess the situation and know how to intervene."
Mental Health First Aid is a skill set, and there are classes available all over the Denver metro area for parents, teachers, professionals and anyone else who wants to learn more. Dr. Glover also leads suicide prevention classes that teach formal strategies like Question, Persuade, Refer, which are designed to convince someone in crisis to seek professional help.
Crisis hotlines are a great way to put someone in crisis in touch with a professional, fast. The Colorado Crisis Service offers a call service at 844-493-TALK.
And if teens don't want to talk on the phone, they can do it by text. Just text the word TALK to 38255.
If someone seems determined to hurt themselves or anyone else — as in, you're truly afraid to leave them alone — immediately seek emergency medical attention or call 911.