Seeing Someone in a Mental Health Crisis

February 15, 2013 Natasha Tracy

It's tough to see someone in a mental health crisis and it's hard to handle gracefully. Here's what to say to an acquaintance you suspect has a mental illness.

Sometimes we run into people with a mental illness that we don’t know that well, but we recognize the signs of mental illness in them anyway. I can spot a person in mania or depression at 10 paces, and I’m not alone. But what do you say to a person that you don’t really know but that you suspect has a mental illness? What if you saw this person in a mental health crisis?

You Have a Mental Illness

First of all, it’s important to realize that suspicions of a mental illness aren’t necessarily accurate. Of course, anyone can be wrong. That doesn’t mean that intuition means nothing, however. I think our desire to help someone that we think is in pain sometimes trumps doubts. Consider, for a moment, what’s the worst that can happen if we reach out to someone in pain? Maybe that person shuns us. But maybe we can live with that if it means possibly helping someone.

I’ve Seen You in a Mental Health Crisis

Usually, we’re aware that someone has a mental illness because we’ve seen him or her in a crisis. This is a tough one because the person in the crisis knows you know about his crisis. This might lead him to avoid you completely. He is probably feeling shame that someone saw him in such a vulnerable, out-of-control state. He probably doesn’t want to explain what really happened. He’s probably embarrassed. Many of us have been there.

But this is all the more reason to show empathy towards the person. If he can’t bridge the gap between you, maybe you can.

Your Behavior Wasn’t Okay

And, of course, if you’ve seen someone in a crisis you know – we’re not always that nice to be around. Quite frankly, we might have treated you poorly and that’s why we feel so bad about it later on. But even if this is the case, that doesn’t mean you can’t approach the subject. You can acknowledge that things are still okay even though the behavior in question wasn’t.

What to Say to a Person You’ve Seen in a Mental Health Crisis

I really think it’s simple. You’re simply relaying human compassion.

“It looked to me like the last time we saw each other, something was wrong and you were hurting. I just want to let you know that I understand. I don’t appreciate how you treated me, but I do understand that there’s probably more to the story than I know. If you ever want to talk about it, I’m here.”

And if you’re absolutely sure the person has an illness, you might even recommend a resource of some sort. For example,

“I think these people (a support group, mental health organization, etc.) might be able to help you.”

What you’re doing is you’re acknowledging what happened as well as your feelings about it while still telling the person that he’s okay and that you empathize.

And I think that’s what matters. You’re defusing the situation and hopefully the shame, fear and guilt that the other person feels and extending your hand. And you’re providing a platform for the other person to apologize and open up if they feel comfortable.

Seeing someone in a mental health crisis is an awkward situation to handle, but communicating human compassion with respect (for yourself as well as the other person) is the key.

You can find Natasha Tracy on Facebook or GooglePlus or @Natasha_Tracy on Twitter.

APA Reference
Tracy, N. (2013, February 15). Seeing Someone in a Mental Health Crisis, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 19 from

Author: Natasha Tracy

Natasha Tracy is a renowned speaker, award-winning advocate, and author of Lost Marbles: Insights into My Life with Depression & Bipolar. She's also the host of the podcast Snap Out of It! The Mental Illness in the Workplace Podcast.

Natasha is also unveiling a new book, Bipolar Rules! Hacks to Live Successfully with Bipolar Disorder, mid-2024.

Find Natasha Tracy on her blog, Bipolar BurbleX, InstagramFacebook, and YouTube.

February, 19 2013 at 9:22 pm

My 18 year old son is Bipolar and he is in the second crisis since diagnosis. I was so sure the professionals had it wrong...but now am sadly,heart wrenchingly know he probably has this disorder. He refuses to admit there is anything wrong...he engages in conversation that makes absolutely no sense... I love m son so very much but I can't seem to reach him. If anyone has suggestions on how to talk to him gently, he is still in high school and I can see this disorder is ruining long-term friendships...I am so worried for him...Thank you

February, 19 2013 at 4:06 pm

Hi Scott,
I went to see Silver Linings Playbook yesterday with my husband, who is my main carer. To be honest I thought it was a compassionate portrayal of those characters. Nobody was laughing in the cinema. However my husband was deeply affected by the movie and was very upset. I think it stirred up a lot of mud for him about what we've been though. I can understand your reaction though particularly if you identify with the main character a lot because you'd know whether bradley cooper was getting it right or not.
I'm really sorry you had that awful experience and I'll try to spread the warning to others.

February, 19 2013 at 9:39 am

Carol, I too have siblings who don't understand what it means to be bipolar. They argue that they have it tougher than me and therefore they should be more depressed or possibly suicidal than I am. However, they don't seem to understand that my depression is not just caused by bad life situations ( credit card debt, huge tax payment due by April 15, not getting along with their spouse, not getting a raise at work, etc) but that it is caused by a chemical imbalance in my brain. I am not choosing to go into crisis, it just happens occasionally and I need support when I am in crisis. I hate being in crisis. Even if I know that I am in crisis, it has been hard for me to find people who really understand the reason I am in crisis.
I am learning what it means to have bipolar disorder. I wasn't diagnosed until I was 45 years old (six months ago). I thought that I was just sad/depressed most of the time but that I would bounce back out of it and be super productive and happy. So, I just held on waiting and anticipating for those moments (hypomania). There have been many times in the past six months that I didn't believe that I really had this illness. Finding these blogs set up by Natasha has helped me understand better that I do have this disorder. I have to educate myself and possibly my siblings (if they will listen) about what bipolar disorder is and what it impact it will have on the rest of life.

February, 18 2013 at 4:53 am

I don't understand it but I think my sister is in a crisis all of the time. I don't think in the last 5 years have I had a normal conversation with her. I too suffer with a mental illness but try to keep my complaints to myself or talk with my spouse about my complaints. My sister goes on and on when she calls on the phone, I do care about her but I can not take this kind of abuse on the phone. Anything I have a complaint about,, she has it worse. And then bringing up the past from 45 years ago and bring up everything she thinks I did wrong.....I can't live in the past and have told her so. I have recommended her going to talk with a professional but she will not consider it. So I have asked for her to write me, no phone calls but she has not respected my wishes. What do I do to stay sane.....and not completely cut her out of my life?

February, 18 2013 at 3:49 am

Just a word of caution. I went to see the movie "Silver Linings Playbook" yesterday. I had no idea in advance what the movie was about. Biggest mistake I've made in years. Hurtful and insensitive to the core. To watch Bradley Cooper portray my life while a theatre full of strangers apparently finds my illness hysterical has really set me back. Angered and saddened. If you see it, watch it at home where it's easier to turn off and walk away from.

February, 17 2013 at 9:29 am

I've seen friends in what looked like mental health crises and didn't know how to talk to them. I asked others for advice and highlighted why I thought these people might be in trouble, that they set off my craydar. When I came out as Bipolar, one of these individuals called me a liar and told me I just needed a good job, so me looking out for her mental health was ironic beyond.
When I approached third parties to express my concerns, I got a little pushback. Nothing can possibly be that wrong, their circumstances were understandable, etc. I felt extremely frustrated with the responses I got given that I can spot symptoms the normals can't. I felt crappy for being dismissed after suggesting someone else might be heading towards huge problems. Hello, =I= am mentally ill!
I wish someone had cared enough about me to send up a flare like that.

February, 15 2013 at 2:33 pm

When my bipolar started, I was a successful practicing health professional. And although I knew something was up with myself deep down, I was very, very good at denial. You wouldn't believe the complex excuses I concucted for myself and everybody else. I wasn't coping with my job and decided to resign, but it was because "I wasn't being challenged" "I wanted the freedom to do things my own way" or "I was getting burnt out".
Many of my colleages were experts in mental illness, and at first I could fool them into believing that I couldn't finish tasks because "I was procrastinating". Didn't fool them for long though. Everyone knew what I wasn't admitting.
The only person I knew who was successful at getting me to seek help, was a family friend with a gentle kind nature, who sent me a nice personal note, empathising with my situation and saying that a psychiatrist had been very helpful for her to get her life back on track.
She's a special kind of individual. Not everyone would have known how to get through to me, not even the mental health experts who I was working with. She saved my life.
So yes, please try, and don't be afraid of failure. The worst that can happen is that the person won't ever talk to you again. But if you don't try, they might end up dead, so it's probably worth the risk.

Charles Mistretta
February, 15 2013 at 11:10 am

I never consider myself to be in a mental state crisis, I am the mental deviant state looking for comradery.
Classification may help the therapist or willing person who has open arms for the sick, but isn't it obvious there's something wrong? Just being nice (for most) is a good begining. Looking for a long distance cure is only a dream. No one has that much time unless you pay for help that comes with no gurantees.
Even Mother Theresa tired of the suffering.

Leave a reply