Risks of Incorrect Mental Health Crisis Intervention

In moments of mental health crises, offering support to those in distress is crucial.

However, the way support is provided can impact the person's well-being and the outcome of the crisis.

Incorrect support can exacerbate the situation, potentially leading to further distress and harm.

In this article, we explore the potential pitfalls of offering incorrect support to someone experiencing a mental health crisis. We also emphasize the importance of informed and empathetic intervention.

Escalating the Crisis

Misunderstanding or misinterpreting the needs of someone in a mental health crisis can mistakeably escalate the situation.

For example, responding with dismissiveness, invalidation, or minimizing the person's feelings may exacerbate their distress and intensify the crisis.

In Australia, mental health services report that about 43% of people will experience a mental health condition in their lifetime, highlighting the widespread nature of this issue.

Similarly, you should never attempt to force immediate solutions or interventions without understanding the underlying causes. This can lead to further agitation and worsen feelings of helplessness.

This is particularly critical in Australia where remote communities might have less access to immediate mental health services, amplifying the need for sensitive and appropriate initial responses.

Reinforcing Stigma

Incorrect support may reinforce stigmas surrounding mental illness.

Responses that are judgmental, dismissive, or based on stereotypes can perpetuate negative attitudes toward mental health issues.

This could contribute to feelings of shame, isolation, and self-blame in the person experiencing the crisis. Which, in turn, can make it more difficult for individuals to seek help and support in the future.

For instance, the Australian Bureau of Statistics highlights that stigma can lead to reluctance in seeking help, with around one in five Australians experiencing a mental health issue each year.

It may also cause them to withdraw, or even turn to alcohol or drug abuse..

A common example of this would be suggesting that someone is ‘just doing it for attention’, or wrongly using a mental health condition to explain behaviours.

Risk of Misdiagnosis or Inappropriate Treatment

It is important to remember that unless you are a trained mental health medical professional, you are not qualified to make any diagnosis or treatment plan.

Inaccurate assessments of the person's need and condition during a mental health crisis can result in inappropriate treatment.

Offering advice or interventions without proper understanding of the underlying issues can lead to ineffective or harmful outcomes.

Additionally, misinterpreting symptoms of mental illness as solely behavioural or character flaws can delay or prevent access to appropriate mental health care.

In Australia, there are numerous mental health support services such as Beyond Blue and Lifeline that can provide the necessary guidance and referrals to appropriate care.

Encouraging the person to speak with their healthcare provider about accessing appropriate support is crucial.

Exacerbating Trauma

Responses that invalidate or minimize the person’s experiences may retraumatize them, especially if the crisis is linked to past trauma.

In Australia, where approximately 11% of the population will experience PTSD at some point in their lifetime, this risk is significant. It’s also important to recognise that a person may have experienced, and be sensitive, to traumas without a formal PTSD diagnosis.

Dismissive or insensitive reactions can reinforce feelings of powerlessness, shame, and fear, exacerbating existing trauma symptoms and complicating the recovery process.

Damage to Trust and Relationships

Incorrect support during a mental health crisis can damage trust and strain relationships between the person in distress and their support network.

Responses that are thought to be dismissive, judgmental, or unsupportive may erode trust and discourage them from seeking help or confiding in others in the future.

This can lead to increased feelings of isolation and exacerbate the person's sense of despair.

In Australia, mental health and community services emphasize the importance of maintaining trust and open communication to effectively support individuals in crisis.

Examples of Incorrectly Attempting to Support Someone Experiencing a Mental Health Crisis

When supporting someone in a mental health crisis, the approach taken can either help de-escalate the situation or inadvertently make it worse. Here are some examples of common mistakes people make when attempting to offer support:

Dismissive Responses

Example: Telling someone "It's not that big of a deal" or "You're overreacting."

Impact: This minimizes the person's feelings and can increase their sense of isolation and despair. It implies that their emotions and experiences are invalid, which can lead to further distress.

Offering Unsolicited Advice

Example: Saying "Just think positive" or "You should exercise more, it will solve your problems."

Impact: These statements can be perceived as oversimplifying complex mental health issues. They suggest that the person’s struggles are easily fixable, which can make the person feel misunderstood and unsupported.

Making Judgments or Stereotypical Comments

Example: Suggesting "You're just seeking attention" or "People with your condition are always so dramatic."

Impact: Such comments reinforce stigma and can cause the person to feel ashamed or guilty about their condition. This can deter them from seeking help in the future.

Invalidating Their Experiences

Example: Responding with "You have nothing to be sad about, your life is great" or "Other people have it worse."

Impact: This type of response invalidates the person’s feelings and experiences. It can lead to increased feelings of guilt, shame, and further emotional distress.

Attempting to Force Solutions

Example: Insisting "You need to see a therapist right now" or "Take these medications, they'll help."

Impact: Forcing solutions without understanding the person’s readiness or willingness to accept help can increase their anxiety and resistance. It may also lead to feelings of helplessness and loss of control.

Ignoring the Person’s Need for Space

Example: Constantly checking in with "Are you okay now?" or "You need to talk to me about this."

Impact: While it’s important to show concern, being overly persistent can feel intrusive and overwhelming. This can push the person away, making them less likely to open up.

Reacting with Fear or Panic

Example: Saying "I don’t know how to help you" or visibly panicking in front of them.

Impact: Displaying panic or fear can heighten the person's anxiety and sense of crisis. It can make the person feel like their situation is hopeless and that they are a burden.

Using Threats or Ultimatums

Example: Threatening "If you don't calm down, I will call the police" or "If you don’t get help, I can’t be around you."

Impact: Threats and ultimatums can escalate the situation and lead to a breakdown in trust. The person may feel coerced and more distressed, making them less likely to seek help willingly.

Conclusion

Offering support to someone experiencing a mental health crisis requires empathy, understanding, and skilful intervention.

While the intention to help is commendable, it's essential to recognize the potential risks of offering incorrect support.

By educating ourselves about mental health issues, cultivating empathy, and learning effective crisis intervention techniques, we can better support people in distress and contribute to creating a more compassionate and supportive environment for mental health recovery.

If you or someone you know needs mental health help, reach out to your health care provider.

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