How to help in a mental health crisis

Research has shown that a person’s interactions with first responders, such as police, healthcare professionals and members of the public, can have a major influence on health outcomes. Seeing someone in emotional and mental distress can be confronting; whilst most people’s first instinct is to call the police, police brutality towards Indigenous people, people of colour, people with disabilities and those in the LGBTQI community is increasing. Time and time again we’ve seen extreme, violent reactions from police towards people with disabilities or mental health issues. 

December 2008, Tyler Cassidy, a 15-year-old boy from Victoria, was shot five times and killed by police after arming himself with two large knives in a shopping centre. 

November 2009, Adam Salter was shot and killed in his home after police responded to a call that he was stabbing himself with a knife, he was known to mental health services. He was shot in the back by a sergeant who claims she mistakenly used her gun instead of a taser.

February 2015, Courtney Topic was shot within 41 seconds of police arriving at the scene after she was spotted holding a kitchen knife outside a Hungry Jack’s. 

September 2019, Yamatji woman Joyce Clarke was shot after her sister called police for help when she started to notice her acting erratically. 

People with mental health issues are ten times more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators. Only 3 – 5% of violent acts are by people with severe mental health issues. For this reason, we at TVP believe it is important that every community member knows what to do when someone’s experiencing a mental health crisis. 

Here are some strategies we can all use to help protect vulnerable members of our community:

Harm Reduction

Practising harm reduction is a major component of providing a safe, supportive environment for people at risk of a mental health crisis. Asking questions like “How can I make this person or situation safer?” is imperative. In the event of a mental health crisis, the goal in that moment is to ensure the safety of everyone involved.  

Whether someone is threatening violence, holding a weapon or threatening to self-harm or suicide it’s always important to remain calm when faced with someone who’s in mental health distress. If you’re in immediate danger, remove yourself from the situation as best as you can. If someone is in distress and they seem receptive to conversation, ask them what they need, or if there’s anyone they’d like you to contact on their behalf. As a member of the general population, if you do not have the requisite skills is not your duty to de-escalate the situation. You may risk putting yourself in harm’s way or potentially exacerbating a situation if you do not have the appropriate training to provide effective de-escalation. 

Here is what you can do:

Get Help

If you’re caring for a loved one, a friend comes to you for support, or you’re out and about and see someone in distress – contacting a specialist public service is the best way of assessing and managing the situation. If the person in question agrees, accompany them to the nearest emergency department. But sometimes, people may not be willing to go to the hospital for help. When this occurs you can contact the local Crisis Assessment and Treatment Team [CATT], also referred to as Psychiatric Emergency Teams [PET], through the closest major public hospital or your state’s mental health crisis line:

  • ACT: Mental Health Triage Service – 1800 629 354
  • NSW: Mental Health Line – 1800 011 511
  • NT: Northern Territory Mental Health Line – 1800 682 288
  • QLD: 24-hour specialist mental healthcare – 1300 MH CALL (1300 642255)
  • SA: Mental Health Triage Service – 13 14 65
  • TAS: Mental Health Service Helpline – 1800 332 388
  • WA: Mental Health Emergency Response Line – 1800 676 822
  • VIC: The state offers specific services based on area and patient age. More information is available here.

The CATT/PET is a team made up of psychologists, psychiatrists, mental health trained nurses and social workers who provide 24/7 assessment and support for people experiencing mental illness.

If you’re unable to contact CATT/PET or there isn’t one servicing your area, and the closest public hospital is far away, you can phone 000 and request an ambulance. Paramedics have training in de-escalation and mental health and are able to provide support to someone in distress. You can also call a phone hotline such as

There are many other, better, options at our disposal when faced with a mental health crisis in public or in our homes. Between 1989 and 2011, 42% of victims of police shootings were experiencing mental illness or a mental health crisis. The NSW government’s response to this in 2013 was to implement a one-day mental health training program. 

If you are in public and see a person in distress, you can take the following actions:

  • If the person is violent or unresponsive to communication, remove yourself and others from the vicinity and contact the psychiatric triage
  • If they are receptive to communication
    • ask them if they need something or you can contact someone on their behalf
    • if they are willing and accepting, accompany them to the nearest emergency department
    • if they are not willing to go to a hospital, contact the psychiatric triage to be referred to a local CATT/PET
    • if a CATT/PET is not available, call 000 and request an ambulance
    • if an ambulance is not available or the person does not wish for one to be called, contact phone hotlines like Lifeline (13 11 14), the Suicide Call Back Service (1300 659 467) and Kids Helpline (1800 55 1800)

As a member of the public, it is not your duty to de-escalate any situation; but we can help bring the attention of people with the training to do so in a way that maintains the safety and dignity of those with mental illness.

Sources:

ABC News [1] [2], HealthDirect, Queensland Mental Health Commission, SANE Australia, San Francisco Chronicle, The Body Is Not An Apology, The Guardian, WA Today, Zakrison et al. (2005).

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