Mental Health Crisis: Signs, Symptoms and Treatment

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What is a mental health crisis?


In today’s busy world, many people are struggling with their mental health. Sometimes, these struggles can become very serious and difficult to handle on your own. It’s important to know what a mental health crisis is, how to recognize it, and what you can do to help yourself or someone else. This guide will explain all these things in simple terms. Whether you’re going through a tough time or you’re worried about someone you know, this guide will give you the information you need to understand and respond to mental health crises.

In this blog, we discuss these topics:

What Is a Mental Health Crisis?

A mental health crisis happens when someone is struggling with their thoughts and feelings. This can make it hard for them to function normally and might even lead them to harm themselves or others. These crises can be different for each person, but there are signs you can watch out for.

Sometimes, the usual ways we cope with stress don’t work during a crisis. This can happen to anyone, whether they have a diagnosed mental health condition or not. Stress from home, work, or other parts of life can trigger a crisis.

It’s important to understand that mental illness is like any other medical condition, and a crisis can happen even if someone is getting treatment. That’s why it’s crucial to recognize the warning signs of a crisis and know how to respond quickly and effectively.

What’s the difference between a mental health emergency and a crisis?

There’s a bit of debate around whether “mental health emergency” and “mental health crisis” mean the same thing, but many folks use them interchangeably. Groups like the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) see them as the same thing in their guides. Some say a mental health emergency is life-threatening, while a crisis is a severe distress but not life-threatening. Others define an emergency as someone trying to harm themselves, while a crisis is someone thinking about it. But no matter what you call it, people going through these tough times need help right away. And if there’s any threat or attempt of self-harm or suicide, it’s both a mental health crisis and a medical emergency.

Factors That Can Trigger a Mental Health Crisis

According to the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI), several signs and symptoms can signify an individual is going through a mental health crisis including:

  • Difficulty in accomplishing routine activities like bathing and dressing.
  • Discussing thoughts of death or past suicide attempts.
  • Withdrawal from social interactions with friends and family.
  • Displaying impulsive or aggressive behaviors, and agitation.
  • Noticeable changes in eating or sleeping habits.
  • Quick mood changes.
  • Disconnecting from reality.
  • Exhibiting paranoia.

If someone you care about shows these signs, they might be having a tough time with their mental health. Be there for them, and help them find support.

How do you know if you’re having a mental health crisis?

The causes of your mental health crisis, like your mental health itself, are individual to you. What constitutes a crisis for one person may not be the same for another.

Some signs that you may be experiencing a mental health crisis include:

  • Struggling to function normally, like finding it hard to get out of bed or complete daily tasks.
  • Difficulty maintaining personal hygiene, such as brushing teeth or bathing.
  • Sudden and intense mood swings.
  • Experiencing psychosis, like hallucinations or delusions.
  • Feeling paranoid.
  • Becoming increasingly agitated, angry, or prone to violence.
  • Having thoughts of suicide or making plans.
  • Engaging in self-harm or using substances to cope.
  • Isolating oneself or withdrawing from social interactions.
  • In most cases, these symptoms and behavioral changes are severe.

If you’re already managing a mental health condition, these symptoms might seem like your usual experience. The important thing is to identify your baseline or “normal” state, so you can recognize when you’re in crisis and know when to seek help.

The American Psychological Association (APA) identifies “a distinct and sudden alteration in behavior” as the primary indicator of crisis. Therefore, if your behaviors and moods stray from your usual patterns, it could signify that you’re approaching or experiencing a crisis.

What are the different types of mental health crises?

Different life events and situations can trigger different types of mental health crises.

Maturational crisis

This mental health crisis type often arises during transitional life stages, like a young child beginning school, an adolescent entering a sexual relationship, a young adult marrying, a middle-aged person navigating parenthood, or an older adult coping with declining health or the loss of a spouse.

Adventitious crisis

Rare and unexpected disasters like floods, fires, earthquakes, pandemics such as Covid-19, airplane crashes, riots, wars, acts of terrorism, violent assaults, or rapes trigger this crisis. Due to the widespread impact on communities, individual mental health needs may be overlooked. Accessing mental health professionals during such times can also be challenging due to the overwhelming demand and limited response capacity.

Situational crisis

A situational mental health crisis stems from grief, often triggered by the upheaval of a familiar situation, posing physical, social, or psychological threats. Academic setbacks, job loss, divorce, caring for a child with health challenges, bereavement, or serious injury can provoke this type of crisis.

Sociocultural crisis

​​This mental health crisis arises when individuals struggle to function within and adhere to the social norms of their community, often facing discrimination based on class or sexual orientation distinctions.

How can the crisis be treated?

Treatment for crises changes depending on your symptoms, medical past, and if services are available. Usually, it includes medicine, talking with someone alone or in a group, and learning how to help yourself.

Where you receive treatment also depends on how serious your condition is and the severity of the crisis. You might receive treatment at:

  • Home
  • Inpatient psychiatric unit or residential care
  • Outpatient facility for daytime visits
  • Emergency room

The duration of your hospital or program stay will vary based on whether it’s voluntary, involuntary, or part of an emergency hold (usually 72 hours in the United States).

In any crisis intervention, the goal is to establish an aftercare plan to assist you in returning to your normal routine and preventing future crises.

Assisting Someone in Crisis: What You Can Do

When someone you know is in crisis, it’s natural to feel overwhelmed. However, maintaining a calm demeanor, even if it’s just for their sake, is crucial. Start by assessing whether they pose a risk to themselves or others, as this will determine the appropriate course of action.

In times of crisis, the objective is to de-escalate the situation. Here are some techniques recommended by NAMI:

  • Stay composed Speaking in a calm tone and avoiding confrontation can prevent the situation from worsening. Moving slowly can also contribute to a sense of stability.
  • Listen Actively listening can help you understand their needs and the symptoms they’re experiencing.
  • Offer assistance Expressing empathy and offering specific forms of support, such as making phone calls or arranging transportation, can reassure them that they’re not alone.
  • Provide options Instead of imposing solutions, offer them choices and be patient as they navigate their feelings and decisions.
  • Respect boundaries Give them space and avoid physical contact unless they explicitly indicate otherwise.

If you ever feel unsafe, prioritize your well-being and leave the location if necessary. You can still help them get the support they need while ensuring your safety.


In this guide, a mental health crisis is defined as a period when someone struggles with their thoughts and feelings to the extent that it impairs their ability to function normally and may lead to self-harm or harm to others. The signs of a crisis can vary, but they include difficulty with routine activities, withdrawal from social interactions, mood swings, changes in eating or sleeping habits and disconnecting from reality. It’s crucial to recognize these signs and respond quickly and effectively, as people going through mental health crises need immediate help and support.


Q1. Defining a Mental Health Crisis?

A1. A mental health crisis is a situation where a person’s behavior places them at risk of harming themselves or others and hinders their ability to care for themselves or function effectively in the community (National Alliance on Mental Illness).

Q2. Types of Mental Health Crises?

A2. Crises can be classified as maturational, situational, adventitious, or sociocultural, and individuals may experience multiple types simultaneously.

Q3. Examples of Mental Health Crises?

A3. Warning signs preceding a mental health crisis may include difficulties with daily tasks, sudden and extreme mood changes, and increased agitation.

Q4. Most Painful Mental Illness?

A4. Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is often considered to cause the most intense emotional pain and distress among those affected, with studies showing chronic and significant emotional suffering.

Q5. Most Painful Emotion?

A5. The pain of traumatic loss, whether from a break-up or the loss of a loved one, is widely recognized as one of the most emotionally distressing experiences one can endure.

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