What is a Mental Health Crisis?

A mental health crisis is different for everyone, but people often experience severe emotional distress, anxiety, and depression. It’s also associated with a loss of control and a reduced ability to function, with previous activities of daily living, such as bathing and eating, becoming extremely challenging.

Coping mechanisms no longer work, and rational thinking becomes obscured by confusion and self-doubt, making it challenging to make sense of one’s experiences or make decisions with clarity. The warning signs differ, with some individuals withdrawing from society and isolating themselves from their friends and family. Reckless behaviour, including substance abuse and gambling, may also indicate a crisis.

The causes of a mental health crisis vary depending on individual circumstances. Personal loss, traumatic events, mental health conditions, and financial worries are just a few examples of possible triggers. A mental health crisis, previously referred to as a ‘mental breakdown’, is complicated to navigate and requires urgent support from a mental health professional.

Recognising the signs of a mental health crisis and reaching out for support is vital for finding a path toward healing and recovery.

What’s the Difference Between a Mental Health Emergency and a Crisis?

While they share similarities, mental health emergencies and mental health crises are substantially different. Mental health emergencies involve a possible danger to oneself or others, such as severe suicidal ideation or psychosis, requiring immediate support and intervention. In contrast, a mental health crisis involves severe emotional distress that does not pose an immediate threat to safety, although urgent intervention is still necessitated.

In both situations, individuals require critical care. Mental health emergencies require interventions that de-escalate life-threatening situations and help individuals reach a place of mental and physical safety. In contrast, mental health crisis interventions de-escalate crisis situations where individuals feel unable to cope with their mental health and are in severe distress.

mental health nurse giving glass of water to a patient

What Causes a Mental Health Crisis?

A mental health crisis is caused by a unique set of interlinking factors and varies depending on individual circumstances. There isn’t a single cause, but rather a myriad of challenges that heavily accumulate and cause feelings of acute distress.

Some of the potential causes of a mental health crisis include:

  • Traumatic life events (e.g. physical or emotional abuse)
  • Chronic stress
  • Substance abuse or dependence
  • Underlying mental health issues (e.g. bipolar disorder)
  • Social isolation or lack of support networks
  • Financial or housing instability
  • Past trauma or adverse childhood experiences

Everyone has a different lived experience and deserves compassionate support that transforms their life and outlook for the better.

Signs of a Mental Health Crisis

Recognising the signs of a mental health crisis is essential for timely intervention and support. These signs often indicate a significant decline in mental well-being, where individuals struggle to cope with overwhelming emotions and thoughts.

Signs of a mental health crisis may include:

  • Isolation from loved ones
  • Sudden and extreme changes in mood
  • Psychosis, including hallucinations or delusions
  • Expressing thoughts of self-harm or suicide
  • Disrupted sleep patterns (e.g. insomnia or oversleeping)
  • Changes in appetite, leading to significant weight loss or gain
  • Inability to perform daily tasks or maintain personal hygiene
  • Substance or alcohol abuse

Recognising and understanding these signs allows for prompt intervention and support, potentially preventing further escalation and facilitating the path to recovery.

Phases of Mental Health Crisis

Mental health crises often unfold in a series of stages, each with its own unique challenges. By recognising these phases, we can better understand the progression of a crisis and provide timely assistance.

Pre-Crisis (Prodromal Phase)

The pre-crisis phase, also known as the prodromal phase, is the initial stage of a mental health crisis. It’s characterised by early warning signs and symptoms, which include changes in mood or behaviour, increased stress levels, difficulty sleeping, and heightened anxiety.

During this phase, the symptoms are unlikely to significantly impact daily functioning. However, they serve as important at-risk indicators. If left untreated, the symptoms can rapidly progress and escalate into a mental health crisis. Early intervention from a mental health professional is critical in preventing crisis situations and a mental health emergency.

Crisis (Acute Phase)

The crisis phase, or acute phase, is the most intense stage of a mental health crisis. It’s marked by a rapid escalation of symptoms and significant emotional distress, ranging from severe anxiety, panic attacks, and psychosis. Individuals feel like they can no longer cope and are exceedingly overwhelmed, finding rational decision-making and meeting their basic needs difficult. Suicidal ideation or suicidal thoughts may also manifest during this phase and are extremely frightening, with individuals feeling unsafe and incredibly vulnerable. It’s vital to seek professional help to de-escalate crises and assist individuals in regaining their mental stability.

Response (Chronic Phase)

The response phase, referred to as the chronic phase, involves providing urgent and proactive support to reduce symptoms of distress and ensure safety. Support services are usually delivered by crisis teams, who are expertly trained to de-escalate crises and help individuals regain their mental clarity. Over this timeframe, individuals may begin to experience some relief from the intense symptoms experienced during the crisis phase. However, they may still struggle with residual symptoms such as mood fluctuations, anxiety, or difficulty coping with stress. Ongoing support is essential to help individuals improve their well-being and maintain their progress.


The post-crisis phase occurs as the individual begins recovering and rebuilding their life. This phase may involve reflection on the crisis experience, processing emotions, and rebuilding coping skills and resilience. Continued support and encouragement are crucial to maintain progress and prevent future crises. A tailored care plan that outlines steps for recovery, potential risks, and personal goals should be co-produced alongside the individual, their family, and healthcare professionals to aid recovery and empowerment. Ongoing therapy, support groups, and self-care activities can help people navigate recovery and encourage long-term well-being.

mental health nurse supports a lady having crisis

What to Do in a Mental Health Crisis Situation?

Amid a mental health crisis, it’s normal to feel overwhelmed and uncertain about what steps to take. It’s an incredibly distressing experience, with people often feeling alone, misunderstood and afraid. The most important step is to prioritise your safety for yourself, and if you’re unsure how to proceed, reach out to someone you trust. Whether it’s a friend, family member, or healthcare provider, their presence can provide comfort and stability while helping to navigate the situation.

Nurseline Community Services focuses on humanising support, ensuring that individuals feel heard and valued throughout the process. Our team of professionals is dedicated to providing comprehensive assistance, including crisis management, care at home, and emotional support.

How to Help Someone Experiencing Mental Health Crisis

When helping someone experiencing a mental health crisis, it’s essential to approach the situation with empathy, patience, and understanding. Firstly, create a safe and supportive environment where the person feels comfortable expressing their feelings without fear of judgment. Actively listen to their concerns and validate their emotions, letting them know their feelings are valid and important. You can provide practical assistance by helping them access professional support services, such as crisis hotlines, mental health providers, or emergency services. Stay with them throughout the crisis, prioritising safety and well-being above all else. When mental health professionals arrive, they may be uneasy and uncomfortable. Reassure them of their safety and offer comfort, reminding them to take one moment at a time.

Nurseline Community Services Offers Mental Health Crisis Support Services

In times of crisis, finding the right support can feel overwhelming. Understanding the importance of recovery, Nurseline Community Services provides humanised mental health support tailored to your unique needs.

Our team is comprised of highly trained, nurse-led clinicians who specialise in crisis intervention, ensuring that you receive the expert care you need. We prioritise active listening, empathy, and non-judgmental support, creating a safe and healing environment. With an in-house team of Positive Behaviour Support (PBS) specialists, we design proactive PBS plans that foster independence and empowerment.

With offices conveniently located in Bristol, Gloucester, and Birmingham, we are readily available to provide CQC-regulated, holistic support.

Take the first steps towards recovery and contact Nurseline Community Services today.