Steps to Take if You’re Worried About Someone’s Mental Health

Author: Anne Rubin, Jill Polster White, Derek Johnson

Date: 2/7/2021 5:02:18 PM

There are ways that each of us can respond to concerns about a mental health crisis and provide assistance to those in need.

As our community continues to react to the tragic shooting of May 10, 2021 – which killed two people, injured a police officer and injured an entire neighborhood – let’s try to understand the ways each of us can respond to concerns about a mental health crisis and get help for those in need.

Mental illness and mental health treatment are complicated by stigma, conflicting laws, and a general lack of understanding of mental illness. It can be difficult to understand why decisions are made and why interventions are not always available when we need them. There are gaps in mental health treatment and services in our community, as there are across the state and nation. Years of historical abuse, stigma and societal fear have prevented many individuals from seeking mental health treatment when they need it most. However, any adult with a diagnosed mental health condition can retain their rights while receiving psychiatric treatment, medication and other services from the authorities.

It is important to remember that law enforcement agencies are limited in what they can do to help a person with a mental illness who refuses services. The right to refuse treatment is a balancing act for personal civil liberties and the protection of both the individual and society. Health behavioral therapy is voluntary except when there is an immediate threat to oneself or others.

It is sometimes difficult to determine when an individual meets the legal limit of an immediate threat or danger versus being a concern for the family or community. Specifically, this critical decision is based on the observation that the person presents a danger to themselves or others on time from contact. Taking away one’s rights without due process is something we should all be concerned about. It is also important to remember that mental illness is not a crime, and no one can and should not be “locked up” for mental illness.

Locally, there are organizations working to fill gaps in services and connect with families and community members in need. The Community Counseling Center, Sierra Mental Wellness Group, Transitions Mental Health Association, CenCal, Middle Coast Community Health Centers, and the SLO County Department of Behavioral Health have a variety of programs and treatment levels to meet behavioral health needs.

What steps can you take if you notice a family member or friend’s deteriorating mental health? Whether you’re worried about a neighbor, want someone to check on a loved one’s well-being, or you’re hoping to find a listening ear, here are three steps you can take.

Step 1:

Be present and stay connected. Oftentimes, the person who needs help first needs a support system made up of family, friends, and neighbors. Don’t blame and don’t be shy. Don’t criticize. Offer hope and encouragement. Try to avoid rushing into the conversation and pushing your agenda. Instead, be patient and listen carefully to learn what the individual thinks, feels, and needs.

If you think someone is in danger of harming themselves or others, be direct and ask tough questions. Surprisingly, people in crisis can be incredibly honest and candid in their responses. Helping someone talk about their emotional pain can reduce rather than increase thoughts associated with paranoia or suicide.

Try to get the person to voluntarily seek care, including inpatient care, which is always the best option. Being supportive of someone in crisis is never easy, but you rarely regret showing up for someone who needs you.

Step 2:

Seek guidance from a therapist, psychiatrist or other mental health or behavioral health professional and call one of the mental health crises or support phone lines listed below. When you’re concerned about someone’s mental health — or your own mental health — there are places to turn for guidance. These phone lines can help you if you know someone who is experiencing a mental health crisis; They will also provide valuable information and referrals in non-crisis situations.

Try these options:

Step 3:

If someone is an immediate danger to themselves or others, call 9-1-1 and ask for an officer trained in Crisis Intervention Training (CIT). Provide as much information as possible to the dispatcher, including his behavior, symptoms, and diagnosis if you know this, the nature of the emergency, and if you suspect any weapons. If you fear that a loved one will intentionally cause an officer to fire their weapon, repeat this information to the dispatcher several times to ensure that those arriving at the location are aware of it.

Even if 911 is called, call any of the local crisis resources listed in Step Two. You, your family, and the person you care about may need help.

Remember, the job of a law enforcement officer is to protect and protect the public through law enforcement. And it is not illegal to be mentally ill. Tragedies can and do happen, but there are steps each of us can take to keep our loved ones and our community safe.


Ann Rubin is a licensed marriage and family therapist who has served as the county’s director of behavioral health for nearly eight years. During her time in the county, she oversaw the development of several programs to treat mental illness, including the opening of the county’s first-ever settlement unit. She has worked in public behavioral health programs and departments for over 35 years.

Jill Polster-White has served as Executive Director of the Transitional Mental Health Association for nearly 30 years. She is responsible for all operations of the organization and employee training, including new program design, client advocacy, and community education.

Derek Johnson served as City Manager of San Luis Obispo for approximately four years. Previously, he served as City Director of Community Development, Interim Director of Finance and Information Technology and Assistant City Manager for the City of San Luis Obispo.


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