We have all experienced sadness, anger, frustration, and grief as part of the human experience, but what happens when a tragic or stressful situation takes these feelings to the extreme? People who feel overwhelmed and incapacitated risk experiencing a mental health crisis. Some mental health conditions can also develop in a person’s 20s or 30s (or change with age), which can also cause a mental health crisis. Learn more about the signs of a mental health crisis and how to help support your co-workers during a mental health crisis in the workplace.

What is a mental health crisis?

A mental health emergency (also known as a mental health crisis) is any situation where a person’s mental health state puts them at acute risk and prevents them from being able to function and care for themselves. In prior years, it was common to refer to these crises as “nervous breakdowns.” That isn’t a medical diagnosis; it’s a vague term and can be demeaning. We prefer mental health emergency because it accurately describes the situation—there is an emergency at hand, which is based on mental health concerns.

Signs of a mental health crisis range from subtle to extreme—and sometimes dangerous. These can include:

  • Inability to take care of hygiene
  • Loss of appetite
  • Intense and sudden mood changes
  • Psychosis
  • Paranoia
  • Anger
  • Violence
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Self-harm or extreme negative self-talk
  • Isolation

During a mental health crisis, the behaviors, thoughts, and feelings that can occur put the person at risk of hurting themselves or others, functioning effectively in a community, and/or caring for themselves. These signs may happen progressively over a few days or weeks.

A mental health crisis can stem from many different places:

  • Change of relationship
  • Personal losses: death, estrangement, or relocation
  • Conflict with loved ones, friends, or co-workers
  • Trauma or experiencing violence
  • Stress at work or school
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Undiagnosed, untreated, or changing mental health condition
  • New medication or missing doses of regular medication

How to help co-workers in a mental health crisis

A mental health crisis can happen anywhere, including the workplace—especially in a high-stress job. If you’ve noticed some of the signs above and suspect your co-worker may be struggling with mental health concerns, there are a few ways to support them.

  • If you are not in danger, stay calm and listen to the person in crisis. Ask what they need to ease their immediate symptoms: Do you need a drink of water? Would you like to go to a quieter space? Is there anybody I can call for you?
  • Listen to them and empathize with their feelings—be careful not to advise on how to “fix” the problem. Allow your peer the space to express what’s on their mind.
  • Ask for help from others around you. It might be best if someone can stay with the person in crisis and someone else can get help from the right people at your workplace (e.g., your supervisor, a crisis manager, HR). Even if the person is not being violent, it might still be appropriate to call 911 so that the person can get to healthcare professionals quickly.
  • If you do not feel safe or the co-worker is violent, do not stay in the same physical space and call for help immediately (911 is suitable, but your work might also have recommended protocol that might be suitable).
  • A workplace needs to have crisis management processes. Check with HR to see if there is one and review the plan and procedures. Managers and leaders should examine if they have a work process for handling health emergencies. If your workplace doesn’t have a mental health crisis management process, encourage your HR team to create one.
  • Understand that mental health crisis is like a physical health crisis. When we get the flu, we need time off to heal and regain strength; the same applies to mental health crises. It’s normal. It’s common. It’s okay.
  • When your co-worker returns to the office, let them take the lead—if they want to talk, be open to talking if you are comfortable with that. If they don’t, continue working and engaging like you were before. Ensure you treat your co-worker as you usually would with kindness and empathy. Talk with a coach or counselor if you’re struggling with the experience.

Learn more about how important it is to have work-life and crisis support, and how Uprise Health can help.