How to Prepare Your Staff for a Mental Health Crisis

Note: For the purpose of this article, the author follows National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) guidance by using the terms "mental health condition" and "mental illness" interchangeably.

Millions of people in the United States are impacted by mental illness each year. Mental illness is defined by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) as a "condition that affects a person's thinking, feeling or mood" resulting from a dysfunction in the brain. Like any emergency involving a physical condition such as a stroke or heart attack, a mental health crisis requires prompt intervention.

Mental illness is often unpredictable. Patients diagnosed with a mental illness or their loved ones may not be prepared or have enough knowledge to recognize the warning signs of a crisis before it occurs. Unfortunately, mental health crises often manifest as disturbances or substance abuse by the person in crisis. Law enforcement officers without appropriate mental health training may be the first to encounter them, leading to additional trauma for the patient.

NAMI states that approximately 1 in 5 adults experiences mental illness in a given year. As a result, healthcare organizations regularly encounter individuals experiencing a mental health crisis in both healthcare facility and physician clinic settings. Healthcare facilities and physician clinics should be prepared to deal with such crises by educating staff, preparing them to recognize and respond to mental illness appropriately. Actions healthcare organizations can take include:

  • Provide educational materials and resources that inform patients with a mental illness and their families of mental health emergency warning signs along with ways to intervene prior to a crisis.
  • Provide individuals with mental health illness and their loved ones with mental health hotline and outreach phone numbers that they can keep handy in their home and contact if they need help.
  • Ensure all staff members receive training to identify and de-escalate violent and aggressive behaviors. Competency with these tools can help staff recognize and defuse potentially dangerous situations.
  • Create an annual training program for staff members on mental health crises using the Navigating a Mental Health Crisis guide provided by NAMI. The guide provides information that helps others understand and cope with mental illnesses. It also offers useful resources that families of patients with mental illness can turn to for assistance. Access the guide here.
  • Encourage individuals with mental illnesses and their families to work with health care providers to develop a crisis plan for mental health emergencies. Steps for developing such a plan are included in NAMI's Navigating a Mental Health Crisis guide.

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Want more information about behavioral health staff training? Visit our Behavioral Health Toolkit here.

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