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Supporting Others in Crisis

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“I’ll never forget the day the phone rang. I felt powerless, I felt stuck. I wanted to help but I didn’t know how, who to call, or what to do. I wanted to solve the problem, but I didn’t know the first place to start.”

Being on the receiving end of a phone call or text when someone is experiencing a mental health crisis is difficult. When a loved one is struggling, you want to do everything you can to help them. And sometimes, you don’t know what that is. As a family member or friend, it can be hard to know what to do, how to act, or what to say when someone is in crisis. If you find yourself in this situation, here are some supportive resources and strategies to consider, adapted from the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) and Mental Health First Aid.

Understand the signs

It’s important to note that a mental health crisis can take many forms: self-harm, panic attacks, suicidal ideation, planning or considering hurting one’s self or others, and more. Unlike other health emergencies, mental health crises don’t often have consistent signs, instructions, or resources on how to help or what to expect.

Learning all you can about mental health is an important first step. NAMI created this video so people experiencing mental health emergencies and their loved ones can have the answers and information they need when they need it. It equips you with tools to assess the situation and questions to ask.

If a loved one is actively talking about suicide, make sure to stay with them while they’re at risk and do not hesitate to get them additional help.

Practice clear, empathetic communication

Listening deeply and without judgment is essential to providing support in the moment. Encourage your loved one to talk about what they’re thinking, how they’re feeling, and how long they have been feeling that way. You might offer, “Sometimes when people go through ______, they may have thoughts of ending their life. I want to check in about your safety. Have you had any of these thoughts?” Asking clearly if someone is considering suicide creates a safe opportunity to intervene.

NAMI notes, “Don’t be afraid to ask directly if they are thinking about suicide. If they need time to respond, allow them to process. You can always repeat the question after a moment of silence, if necessary.” Listening in a kind and patient way can allow others to feel comfortable and safe enough to share what they’re going through. What’s important is that you’re showing up, listening deeply and non-judgmentally, and can connect them to more support, if needed.

Reach out for additional support

If you’re concerned, but it’s not an urgent situation, ask if they’re open to building a crisis plan or connecting to others together. Re-visit what care and connection has helped in the past. Perhaps a therapist, family member, friend or spiritual leader has given them support. It’s important to tap into those systems as much as possible during this time. Support might also include researching treatment options, making phone calls, or even setting up an appointment with the person.

If you are concerned for the person’s immediate safety, call 9-1-1 or an alternative resource. Remember: police intervention may not feel safe to everyone, particularly people of color. If this is the case, there are additional supports available within the community. Here are a few resources you can contact 24/7:

  • If you are immediately concerned about someone, text Crisis Text Line at 741741 to connect with a trained crisis counselor to receive crisis support via text message.
  • You may call your local county crisis line to request assistance for you, a friend, or a family member (24/7/365). Safety and wellness checks can be requested and completed anonymously.
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – Call 800-273-TALK (8255) to speak with a trained crisis counselor.
  • National Domestic Violence Hotline – Call 800-799-SAFE (7233) to speak with trained experts who provide confidential support to anyone experiencing domestic violence or seeking resources and information.
  • Call 9-1-1 if the crisis is a life-threatening emergency. Make sure to notify the operator that it is a mental health crisis and ask for an officer trained in crisis intervention.

Check in on yourself as you check in on others

Remember to take care of yourself as you’re supporting others. Practice deep breathing and tuning into how you’re doing during and after the experience. Navigating crisis can be difficult and overwhelming. You may notice many feelings including frustration, sadness, loss, or lack of control. Creating a plan that focuses on what and who you know may help. Whether managing crisis situations or day-to-day mental health, remember that you are not alone.

Support and counseling

If you could use additional support, check out the resources below.

  • Washington Listens is a program to support anyone in Washington experiencing stress due to the COVID-19 pandemic or any of the events that have occurred because of it. Call 1-833-681-0211, Monday – Friday from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. and weekends from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. TTY and language access services are available.
  • Crisis Connections provides many resources and support for anxiety, loneliness, recovery, and more. Language interpretation in more than 155 languages is available. Call 866-427-4747 or text HOME to 741741 for support.
  • SAMHSA Disaster Distress Helpline provides trained counselors and support for stress, anxiety and more. Support available 24/7, 365 days a year. Call 1-800-985-5990 or text TalkWithUS to 66746. Spanish-speakers can call the hotline and press “2” for bilingual support. Interpreters are available for 100 other languages.
  • King County’s Department of Community and Human Services provides publicly funded mental health and substance use services to low-income people in need.
  • A list of additional Community Mental Health Resources helps connect King County residents to 24/7 emotional support resources, ways to connect to a counselor, and information for both people living with a mental health condition and their family members and caregivers. 

We recognize that mental health impacts us all. We’re committed to keeping the conversation going. Let’s do what we can to connect ourselves and each other to the resources that we need.


Originally adapted from the King County Balanced You blog and posted on Public Health Insider on October 7, 2020.

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