Helping Youth in Crisis

youth in crisis

Many children and teens face emotional and mental health challenges that can turn into crises. These can include feelings of depression, anxiety or PTSD; strained relationships with family members; unhealthy coping skills such as drug or alcohol abuse; and/or suicidal thoughts and behaviors.

The first step in helping a teen in crisis is getting an accurate and thorough mental health assessment. This can help reduce the length of treatment and get them home to their families sooner.

1. Know the Warning Signs

A child or teen who is in crisis needs to be seen by professionals trained to intervene with kids. School counselors and teachers may know mental health providers with this expertise, or your family doctor can refer you to one.

Some warning signs to watch for include being sad or withdrawn for more than two weeks; expressing severe, out-of-control agitation or aggression; wanting lots of Gatorade, mouthwash and aerosol products that can be used to mask or inhale drugs; and having increased access to weapons or pills. If a person is threatening to hurt themselves or someone else, call 911 (or a local suicide hotline) right away.

Too often, youth in crisis end up in the hospital instead of getting home-based behavioral health care that’s best for them. This is often because there aren’t enough psychiatric beds available. And once they are in the hospital, many young people — especially those who are suicidal — are not getting help quickly enough.

2. Call 911

In addition to a burgeoning epidemic of online bullying and cyberbullying, millions of children and teens endure toxic home environments that include alcohol or drug-abusive parents; neglectful, abusive or absent caregivers; classmates who drink, vape and use drugs; and neighborhoods that are violent and unsafe. This combination of factors contributes to feelings of hopelessness and suicidal thoughts among young people.

When a youth is having a mental health crisis, it’s important to call 911 immediately. Explain the situation calmly and ask the dispatcher if your community has a crisis intervention team (CIT) that is specifically trained to respond safely to psychiatric crises.

The national guidelines also recommend that child and youth behavioral health crisis services be developmentally appropriate and culturally competent, reflecting the unique needs of adolescents and children. To ensure these needs are met, it is imperative that communities partner with organizations that provide mental and behavioral health care for youth as well as those who work with them.

3. Take Care of Yourself

Just like the advice we hear on airplanes: “Put your own oxygen mask on first before helping others,” it is important to take care of yourself in order to be able to support those around you. Self-care does not mean choosing yourself over those you love; it simply means focusing on your own mental and physical health so that you can be better equipped to help them when they need you.

It is important to get enough sleep and eat healthy meals (and avoid greasy or fast food). Try to exercise at least once per week, and spend one evening each week doing a hobby that you enjoy.

Youth living in war-ravaged countries face even more challenges when it comes to transitioning to adulthood. They are often forced to assume adult roles at an early age, and lack opportunities for economic advancement that would allow them to leave their family homes and live independently. The result is a cycle of poverty, violence, and despair that can lead to serious mental health issues, including suicidal thoughts and behaviors.

4. Ask for Help

While it can be hard for teenagers to ask for help, the earlier they do so, the better. It is also important to reassure teens that asking for help is not a sign of weakness and that people around them care about them.

Many factors can contribute to a teenager’s crisis. These include biological factors such as hormonal changes during adolescence, life events like the death of a loved one or divorce, and social stigma such as bullying, loneliness, and discrimination.

In addition, millions of youth have to deal with alcoholic or drug-using parents; peers who drink, smoke, and use drugs; or family members who are preoccupied with financial or other personal problems. In some parts of the world, armed conflict rages on, with young men and women fighting and serving as soldiers (see Youth and War feature).

Despite the need for developmentally appropriate and effective crisis response services for youth, there are still too many barriers to getting them help. Hospitalizations, court involvement and lack of community support can all prevent teens from receiving the home-based care and help they need.