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How to Help a Loved One Experiencing Severe Mental Illness or a Crisis

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Clinically Reviewed by:
Lindsey Rae Ackerman, LMFT

Written by:
Alex Salman, MPH on March 28, 2024

Navigating the challenges of a severe mental illness — or a mental health crisis — can be daunting for both the affected individual and their loved ones alike. Witnessing someone you care for struggle with their mental health can be overwhelming, but remember that it is possible to provide meaningful support and cultivate hope for a healthier future with patience, empathy, and professional guidance.  

In today’s blog, Clear Behavioral Health will explore practical strategies and compassionate approaches to help you navigate the complexities of supporting a loved one with their severe mental illness, ensuring they feel heard, valued, and supported on their journey toward recovery. 

What Can Be Considered a Severe Mental Illness? 

Severe mental illnesses are characterized by significant impairment in cognitive, emotional, and/or behavioral functioning that substantially interferes with one’s ability to manage daily life activities.  

Some examples of severe mental illnesses can include:[1] 

  • Schizophrenia: Schizophrenia is a chronic and severe mental disorder that affects how a person thinks, feels, and behaves. It often involves hallucinations, delusions, disorganized thinking, and impaired social functioning. 
  • Schizoaffective Disorder: Schizoaffective disorder involves symptoms of both schizophrenia (such as hallucinations or delusions) and mood disorders (such as mania or depression). It can lead to significant impairment in daily functioning and require ongoing treatment. 
  • Bipolar Disorder: Bipolar disorder involves extreme mood swings that include emotional highs (mania or hypomania) and lows (depression). These mood swings can significantly disrupt daily functioning and interfere with relationships and work. 
  • Major Depressive Disorder (MDD): Major depressive disorder or major depression is characterized by persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and a loss of interest in activities. It can lead to serious functional impairment in daily life, including difficulty with work, school, and relationships. 
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): PTSD can develop after exposure to a traumatic event and is characterized by symptoms such as flashbacks, nightmares, severe anxiety, and emotional numbness. It can significantly impair daily functioning and quality of life. 
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD): OCD is characterized by intrusive, unwanted thoughts (obsessions) and repetitive behaviors or mental acts (compulsions) performed in response to those thoughts. It can lead to significant distress and impairment in daily life. 
  • Eating Disorders: Conditions such as anorexia, bulimia and binge-eating disorder are considered severe mental illnesses due to their potentially life-threatening physical consequences and significant impact on mental and emotional well-being. 

These conditions vary in severity and presentation among individuals, and diagnosis should be made by a qualified mental health professional based on a comprehensive assessment and evaluation.

Additionally, not all people who are diagnosed with these (or other mental illnesses) are considered severe, and treatment plans should be tailored accordingly to address individual needs and circumstances. 

What are the Signs of Severe Mental Illness? 

Signs of severe mental health conditions can vary depending on the specific disorder, but some common signs and symptoms include:[2] 

  • Changes in Mood or Emotions: Severe mental health conditions often involve extreme or persistent changes in mood. This may include intense sadness, irritability, euphoria, or emotional numbness. 
  • Disorganized Thinking: Conditions like schizophrenia may cause disorganized thinking, leading to confusion, difficulty concentrating, or disjointed speech. 
  • Hallucinations: Hallucinations involve experiencing sensory perceptions that are not based on external stimuli. This can include hearing voices, seeing things that aren’t there, or feeling sensations that have no physical cause. 
  • Delusions: Delusions are false beliefs that are strongly held despite evidence to the contrary. These beliefs vary from paranoid (e.g., believing someone is out to harm them) to grandiose (e.g., believing they have special powers or abilities). 
  • Changes in Behavior: Severe mental illnesses often result in changes in behavior that are noticeable to others. This may include social withdrawal, agitation, impulsivity, or engaging in risky behaviors. 
  • Impaired Functioning: A significant decline in the ability to carry out daily activities such as work, school, self-care, or maintaining relationships is common in severe mental health illnesses. 
  • Difficulty Sleeping or Changes in Sleep Patterns: Insomnia or excessive sleeping can be signs of a mental health condition, particularly if they are persistent and interfere with daily functioning. 
  • Changes in Appetite or Weight: Significant changes in appetite or weight, such as rapid weight loss or gain, may occur with severe mental health conditions like depression or eating disorders. 
  • Physical Symptoms: Some mental health conditions can manifest with physical symptoms such as headaches, digestive problems, or chronic pain, often with no apparent medical cause. 
  • Suicidal Thoughts or Behavior: Thoughts of suicide or self-harm are serious symptoms that require immediate attention and intervention. 

Experiencing one or more of these signs does not necessarily mean someone has a severe mental health condition. Diagnosis should be made by a qualified mental health professional based on a comprehensive assessment of symptoms, medical history, and other factors. 

What is Considered a Mental Health Crisis? 

A mental health crisis encompasses situations where an individual undergoes severe emotional distress or displays behaviors posing immediate risks to their safety or others. These crises, varying in nature and intensity, often manifest acute symptoms of mental illness or overwhelming emotional turmoil. Some clear indicators include suicidal ideation or behaviors, aggressive conduct towards oneself or others, and psychotic symptoms such as hallucinations or delusions impairing reality perception.[3] 

Additionally, extreme anxiety or panic attacks, severe depression leading to withdrawal from daily activities, substance abuse with associated risky behaviors, and disorganized thinking or behavior can all indicate a state of crisis.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAHMSA), an inability to manage basic self-care needs due to mental health symptoms, severe emotional distress like agitation or hysteria, and withdrawal from support systems can further worsen the circumstances of a severe mental illness as well.[4] 

Working to take the appropriate action is vital to ensure the individual’s safety and well-being during such a crisis. This might entail reaching out to emergency services, seeking assistance from mental health professionals, or providing immediate support and reassurance until professional help arrives.  

What are the Treatment Options for a Serious Mental Illness? 

Treatment options for a serious mental illness (SMI) encompass a wide spectrum of care, tailored to the individual’s condition and needs. The journey typically begins with an initial assessment and mental health diagnosis (if one has not yet been received), where a comprehensive psychiatric evaluation is conducted.

This evaluation involves reviewing medical history, performing physical examinations, psychological testing, and engaging in interviews with the patient and their support network. It’s crucial to accurately diagnose the condition and assess its severity to determine the most appropriate course of action.[5]  

Mental Health Stabilization

Some cases, where the individual poses a risk to themselves or others, may require hospitalization in a psychiatric facility for immediate stabilization and safety. Psychiatric medications such as antipsychotics, mood stabilizers, or antidepressants may be prescribed to manage symptoms and stabilize the individual’s condition.  

Residential and Transitional Programs

Once stabilized, active engagement in ongoing treatment is critical for maintaining the healing process. Individuals may benefit from residential treatment for mental health to facilitate a smooth transition. This involves continual monitoring and adjustment of medication, regular therapy sessions, and psychosocial interventions to address ongoing symptoms and stressors.

Transitional programs assist individuals with the process from hospitalization back into their communities, providing support and monitoring during this critical period. Access to community mental health centers, support groups, and peer support networks further reinforces ongoing assistance and encouragement.[6]  

Ongoing Therapy

Long-term management focuses on maintaining stability and preventing relapse. This includes maintenance medication, continued therapy, and lifestyle modifications such as regular exercise, adequate sleep, proper nutrition, and stress management.

Individuals may benefit from outpatient services such as partial hospitalization and intensive outpatient programs (IOPs) that provide ongoing support. Crisis intervention services, including crisis hotlines and mobile crisis teams, also provide immediate support during periods of crisis or heightened symptoms. 

Family Involvement

Family involvement and education are integral parts of the treatment process. Family therapy sessions can improve communication, enhance understanding of the illness, and facilitate support. Education and resources for family members about mental disorders and available treatment options empower them to effectively support their loved one through their recovery. 

Throughout the entire treatment journey, a multidisciplinary approach involving psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, nurses, and other healthcare professionals is crucial. Individualized treatment plans, ongoing monitoring, and adjustments ensure that the person receives the best possible care and support for their severe mental illness. 

What if My Loved One Doesn’t Want Help? 

Supporting a loved one who is resistant to seeking help for their mental health concerns can be incredibly distressing. However, there are steps you can take to offer support and encourage them to consider treatment.

Try your best to approach your loved one with empathy, expressing your concern for their well-being and assuring them that you’re there to listen without judgment. Take time to educate yourself about their specific mental health condition or symptoms, which will help you provide more informed support and communicate effectively with them. 

Open Communication About Mental Illness

Encouraging open dialogue is key — let your loved one know that it’s okay to talk about their feelings and experiences, and reassure them that seeking help is a positive step towards feeling better. Offer your support and reassurance, let them know they’re not alone, and be willing to accompany them to appointments or help them find resources if they’re open to it. However, remember to respect their autonomy and avoid pressuring them into treatment, as this can lead to further resistance. 

Remain open to explore and discuss any concerns or fears someone may have about mental health, such as stigma, financial worries, or past negative experiences with treatment. Additionally, prioritize your own self-care throughout this process, seeking support from friends, family, or a therapist if needed.  

Contact Emergency Services if Necessary

If your loved one is in immediate danger or experiencing a mental health crisis, don’t hesitate to seek emergency assistance. By offering understanding, empathy, and support, you can help your loved one navigate their journey towards better mental health, even if they’re initially resistant to seeking help.[7] 

Need Help for Yourself or a Loved One? 

Clear Behavioral Health understands that seeking support for yourself or a loved one dealing with mental illness can be a difficult but crucial step toward healing and recovery. We offer a full spectrum of care and aftercare services tailored to address a variety of conditions, ensuring that individuals receive the comprehensive support they need at every stage of their journey.  

We strive to empower individuals and their loved ones to achieve mental wellness and lead fulfilling lives. If you or someone you care about is struggling with a serious mental illness or another mental health concern, contact Clear Behavioral Health today to learn more about our residential mental health treatment centers, outpatient programs, and our virtual Intensive Outpatient Programs (IOPs) serving all of California. Our compassionate team is available now to walk you through your treatment options and guide you every step of the way on your journey toward mental well being.

References:  

  1. Evans, T. S., Berkman, N., Brown, C., Gaynes, B., & Weber, R. P. (2016). Background. In www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (US). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK368430/ on March 18, 2024 
  2. National Alliance on Mental Illness. (2020). Know the Warning Signs | NAMI: National Alliance on Mental Illness. Nami.org. https://www.nami.org/About-Mental-Illness/Warning-Signs-and-Symptoms on March 18, 2024 
  3. National Alliance on Mental Illness. (2018). NAVIGATING A MENTAL HEALTH CRISIS | A NAMI resource guide for those experiencing a mental health emergency About NAMI. https://www.nami.org/Support-Education/Publications-Reports/Guides/Navigating-a-Mental-Health-Crisis/Navigating-A-Mental-Health-Crisis on March 18, 2024 
  4. SAMHSA. (2020). National Guidelines for Behavioral Health Crisis Care -A Best Practice Toolkit Knowledge Informing Transformation National Guidelines for Behavioral Health Crisis Care Best Practice Toolkit National Guidelines for Behavioral Health Crisis Care -A Best Practice Toolkit Knowledge Informing Transformation. https://www.samhsa.gov/sites/default/files/national-guidelines-for-behavioral-health-crisis-care-02242020.pdf on March 18, 2024 
  5. Mental Health America. (2022). Mental Health Treatments. Mental Health America. https://mhanational.org/mental-health-treatments on March 18, 2024 
  6. SAMHSA. (2022, March 31). Living Well with Serious Mental Illness. Www.samhsa.gov. https://www.samhsa.gov/serious-mental-illness on March 18, 2024 
  7. When a family member is unwilling to seek help. (n.d.). CAMH. https://www.camh.ca/en/health-info/guides-and-publications/when-a-family-member-is-unwilling-to-seek-help on March 18, 2024 

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