Tuesday, April 5, 2016

How Would You Respond To Someone In a Mental Health Crisis?

If you saw a stranger standing alone suddenly stop and clutch their heart and look to be in pain or alarm, would you stop and help? Would you at least ask if they were OK or call 911 or look for the nearest person who may be able to offer more assistance? My guess is, you would be likely to. You'd want to take some action. Surely, you, a good, caring, kind person, wouldn't leave someone, even a total stranger, who looked to be suffering a heart attack. Same if you saw someone fall in agony with what looked to be a broken bone. But what if you saw someone having a mental health crisis? If you saw someone sitting against a wall or sitting on a bench, standing on a corner sobbing, completely alone, in obvious emotional pain. Would you stop? What if they were in the midst of an anxiety or panic attack, asking for help, or saying something that didn't make sense to you through their tears, struggling to breathe? What if they tried to pretend they weren't there, so depressed and withdrawn they wished to be invisible?

I can tell you from personal experience, the answer is no. Strangers do not stop. They do not ask if you are OK. It doesn't matter to them that you're crying, gasping for breath, quietly asking for someone to please help. To them, that's "crazy", and they're not going to touch "crazy" with a ten foot pole. They don't want to be associated with it. Or, to give them the benefit of the doubt, maybe they think, at least for us women, that we're just being dramatic, hormonal, emotional. That they have bigger problems than to help some woman that can't pull herself together and help herself (I can't speak from the man's point of view, as  I've never been a man suffering from an anxiety attack or depressive episode in public). But I can tell you that I can count on one finger the number of times someone has stopped for me. And that person was in an elevator with me, so perhaps it was simply the proximity, or the fact that I was wearing a shirt that said "Out of Darkness Walk for Suicide Prevention" at the time that made her think that something more substantial was wrong. But let me tell you, that one person, she made me feel like I mattered when I thought I didn't. But that happens so seldom.

Let me tell you instead what happens: You have a panic attack, or anxiety attack, or (hypo)manic episode or are so depressed you can barely lift your head. Someone you don't know, or don't know well, sees or hears this. They get concerned, but not for you, for themselves.  Because you're acting "weird" at best and "crazy" at worst. Maybe you're dangerous, they think. I better not let them near me, let alone help. Then, without speaking to you at all to find out what happened, to make sure you're OK they "take some action". Some cowardly, inappropriate action. Maybe they post something about it on social media "I just saw this crazy lady crying on the corner for no reason and begging for help. What a freak." Or maybe, if it's someone somehow associated with you - someone in your industry, or in your housing complex, they write something to you about your "behavior", or worse, write something to someone else and complain about you without any knowledge of what actually happened. Maybe you're then stigmatized and possibly discriminated against in the group or community, or whatever it is. Not overtly, of course - that's illegal. Nobody wants the ADA on their tail. But maybe you're glanced at sideways, or written off as less capable, or considered a "problem" that people talk about behind closed doors. All without anyone speaking to you to find out about your medical condition. And if it's someone you have no contact with - well, you just become that crazy lady that cries on the street randomly. Or you're nobody at all. Nobody deserving of help, of asking if they're OK. And that, to be honest, is worse. I've been an outsider my whole life. I get it. I've grown to accept it. But to be nobody, to be invisible? In avoiding asking if that person was OK, it might be the last thing that nobody said to that person. Because all they needed in that moment was someone to reach out and notice kindly, and nobody did. That person, in their eyes, is nobody.

So please before you judge, before you label, and before you pass someone by that looks to be in any kind of pain, stop and think - how would you feel if all you needed was someone to understand what you were going through, or at least to try to, and everyone refused, as if you and your pain didn't exist And maybe, next time, stop to ask. Or offer a tissue to someone crying. Or offer to listen to them. But treat them like a human being. The way you would if they were having a "physical" attack, because it's no different. You might think it is. You might a heart attack is an emergency because you think it can kill and mental illness cannot.  And you'd be horribly mistaken.

I hope others have a better experience. I'd like to hear them, if you have. I'm sure the world is full of good and caring people who would stop and help a stranger in any kind of need. So please, if you've been in such a situation, please share if so inclined. It can, of course, be anonymous, as always. 


  1. Hi!

    I loved your post, it's so me and I hope you don't mind but I had to share it. I have several OCD's and no pill or therapy worked... I act crazy but not because I' having panic attacks, but because the behaviour I take to avoid them... I don't control it, but to not have so many panic attacks like you describe, I have repeatitive behaviours and thoughts, when I think nobody is watching... I feel too embaressed to show in public any kind of emotions besides rage, which fortunetly is rare...In my country people act like you said or worse. I learned to live with that and now I learn that it's not always a curse, it's bad but not the worst that can happen... maybe I'm like the ones who love to see the positive in everything, but the thing is, humans simply are not prepared to get out of the confort zone, think outside of the box, or even change their ways... when I started to learn, read, think for myself and about my illness it was a shock I probably know a lot of people are not ready to face... only people with a lot of things to accept inside themselves, someone as broken and betrayed by themselves like us can actually look in other's eyes and see and recognyze the struggles and pain others can't see... that and the family with someone with a mental illness and fight with them that illness, that's the reason it's more easier to help others than myself. Excellent text, I'll looking further for more posts of yours!

    A big virtual hug from one "crazy" to another!


    Ana, Portugal.

    1. Hi Ana,
      Thank you for the comment and the virtual hug. I'm sorry to hear you experience the same thing. You are so right that people are not prepared to get out of their comfort zone and traditional ways of thinking. And also that it's not always a curse- I think those of us who understand this are more likely to help others who are going through something difficult. Thank you so much for sharing your experience. I'm sorry to hear you're dealing with this, but it sounds like you have a great attitude! A big virtual hug to you too!

  2. Earlier this week I was part of a discussion about mental health and labeling at the University of Pennsylvania and some members of the group expressed concerns similar to yours about people lack of willingness to really help out (albeit this was mostly about responses of people on a university campus). I've passed the link to Lilies and Elephants along to them.

    1. Thank you for passing the link along! Unfortunately, it seems the lack of willingness to help spans generations, though I do wonder if people are more willing to help people of certain ages than others. i.e. if people saw an elderly person sitting on their own crying, or a youth, would they be more willing to help than a 20-30-40-something.