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July 14, 2014
by Cathy England, MA

Some of the Warning Signs of a Mental Health Emergency

July 14, 2014 04:55 by Cathy England, MA  [About the Author]

Is This An Emergency?

Mental health emergencies can occur both in individuals who are receiving treatment, and in those who have never had a mental health issue in the past. The difference between a need for treatment and an emergency can be difficult to discern.  However, there are some well documented warning signs that can help to determine what type of intervention is best suited to an individual.

There are approximately one million deaths as the result of suicide around the world on an annual basis (Gangwisch, 2010). The number of attempted suicides in a given year far exceeds that number.  It was, in 2010, the tenth leading cause of death in the United States. Given those facts, it is in everyone’s best interest to know some of the signs that a friend or family member may be having a crisis. Goldstein and Ruscio (2009), cite the presence of a mood disorder as being the number one risk factor of suicidal ideation or thoughts, attempts, and death.  The most prevalent mood disorder that contributes to risk of suicide is a depressive disorder.  Additionally, taking an anti-depressant has been shown to increase the risk, especially in teens and young adults.  A family history of depression or suicide can also put a person at risk.

What To Look For-

  1.        Expressions of feelings of worthlessness- An individual may express that they do not feel like they have anything to contribute, that they are a burden on others, or that others would be better off without them.·      
  2.           Behaving recklessly- The person may begin using or increase the use of alcohol or other illicit substances, they may show a decrease of fear in dangerous situations, or show signs that they are experimenting with or researching self-behaviors.
  3.        Stating sentiments of wanting to die- An individual who is actively expressing a desire to die, or threatening to commit suicide should be taken seriously.
  4.        Increased anger or mood swings- An individual who shows uncharacteristic anger or rage may be at risk of suicide.  Additionally, extreme mood swings can be a sign that an individual is suicidal.
  5.        Change in sleep pattern- Changes in sleep, either too much sleep or very little need for sleep is a sign that a person is in a mental health crisis situation.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (n.d.) offers some suggestions of what to do to help someone who may be experiencing a mental health crisis.  These suggestions include making a call to a crisis line, taking the person to an emergency room, or helping them to seek immediate mental health treatment.  It can be difficult for an individual experiencing an emergency to think about their treatment options.  This is where friends and family members can be of the most help.

If a person is demonstrating any of the aforementioned signs of a mental health emergency, they should be taken seriously and action should be taken.  In this instance, taking steps to prevent suicide is always advisable (American Association of Suicidology, 2010).  There is sometimes a thought that a person is just looking for attention, or that they are not really serious.  When a person expresses any thought of suicide, chances are that they are reaching out for help. In many instances, a person does want to live, but feels hopeless about the fact that they may never feel better which can lead to desperation.  Intervention may save their life.

Suicide is a Preventable Cause of Death 

Awareness and intervention can decrease deaths by suicide dramatically.  It is not something to be feared or avoided.  Be an ally to a person in need and help them if they reach out.  Additionally, a person with any of the listed risk factors should be monitored occasionally for these warning signs.  Mental health treatment is an intervention that can be effective in a majority of cases (National Institutes for Mental Health, n.d.).  Encourage a person with a mental health disorder to talk about how they are feeling as this may increase the likelihood that they will reach out when their thoughts and feelings are out of control.


Gangwisch, J. E. (2010). Suicide risk assessment. Current Medical Literature: Psychiatry, 21(4), 113-119

Goldstein, E. A., & Ruscio, J. (2009). Thinking outside the black box: The relative risk of suicidality in antidepressant use. Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice, 7(1), 3-16

American Association of Suicidology (2010). Facts about suicide and depression. Retrieved from

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (n.d.)

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, National Institutes of Mental Health.  (n.d.). Suicide: A major preventable mental health problem fact sheet.  Retrieved from

About the Author

Cathy England, MA Cathy England, MA

Cathy holds a Master’s degree in Psychology and has 13 years of work experience in counseling and social work. Cathy is an advocate for mental health awareness and enjoys educating people about mental health and the ways that it impacts people and communities. Most of her experience has been in work with court dependent or delinquent adolescents and their families. Cathy has also worked as a volunteer as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) for children under court supervision.

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