Mental Health First Aid helps people assist someone experiencing a health crisis the same way CPR teaches someone without medical experience in assisting a person in a medical crisis. Mental health crises include instances of suicidal ideation or substance use issues. In both situations, the goal is to help support the victim until appropriate professional help is identified.
Like CPR, there are certification classes in Mental Health First Aid that teach participants to assess risk, listen to a person in crisis, and identify appropriate professional help and other support.
However, even without certification, there are some simple things anyone can do to help someone dealing with a mental health crisis. Mental Health First Aid is also important for healthcare professionals, as they are usually ones that people come to for help.
Below is a list of the things to do and things to avoid when talking to someone during a mental health emergency:
What To Do For Mental Health First Aid
Mental Health First Aid follows three basic steps:
- Recognize the signs and symptoms of mental health problems
- Intervene to provide initial help
- Guide the person to appropriate professional help
Although each situation is unique, the most important thing to do is simply be there and listen and show you care. Here is how you can do that:
- Find a private setting where you will not be overheard or interrupted. To show there are no barriers between you and the person in need, arrange things in your environment so there are no large objects, such as a desk, between you and the person.
- Keep your comments brief and simple, so you do not get the person off track.
- Ask probing questions that encourage the person to keep talking. These can be questions such as “What happened next?” or “What was that like?”
- Give verbal and non-verbal messages of caring and support. Facial expressions and body posture go along way toward showing your interest. Do not hesitate to interject your own feelings as appropriate.
- Let people know that it is OK to cry. Some people are embarrassed if they cry in front of others. Handing over a box of tissues in a matter-of-fact way can help show that tears are normal and appropriate. It is also OK if you get a bit teary yourself.
What Not To Do For Mental Health First Aid
People respond to situations differently, so it is helpful not to be distressed at how the person in need of Mental Health First Aid reacts to their situation. One person may react very calmly, while another expresses strong feelings. One person may have an immediate emotional response while another may be “numb” at first and respond emotionally later.
Emotions are rarely simple. People who are suffering loss often feel anger along with grief. Unless you see signs of actual danger, simply accept the feelings as that person’s natural response at the moment. If a person is usually rational and sensible, those qualities will return once their painful feelings are expressed.
It is natural to worry about saying the wrong thing. People will understand if you say something awkward in a difficult situation. Use this to guide you:
- Do not offer unsolicited advice. People usually will ask for advice later if they need it. Giving unsolicited advice often only gets in the way when a person is sharing their difficulties.
- Do not turn the conversation towards you. If you have had a similar experience, you may want to mention that briefly when the moment seems right. But do not say, “I know exactly how you feel,” because everybody is different.
- Do not say anything which tries to minimize the person’s pain such as, “You shouldn’t take it so hard” or “It could be a lot worse.” This only heightens the person’s guilt for not having a better grasp on their mental health.
- Do not say anything which asks the person to disguise or reject his or her feelings such as, “You have to pull yourself together.”
After you have finished talking with the person in need, it might be helpful to encourage them to seek professional help. Professionals can help in special ways and provide the suffering individual with insights that most of us are not able to offer.
But to get that help, individuals in crisis often need guidance. It is natural to feel reluctant or even afraid of facing another person’s painful feelings. But it is important not to let this fear prevent us from doing what we can to help someone who is suffering.
For more helpful mental health resources, you may check out the guidelines from the National Institute of Mental Health.