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When is a mental illness serious enough to go to the ER?

May 10, 2021 • read

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When is a mental illness serious enough to go to the ER?

It’s no secret that support for mental illness isn’t as timely as it should be. In some parts of the country, it can take weeks or even months to see a mental health professional. When you’re in crisis, you need help immediately. There’s no time to browse through doctors who are taking new patients. 

If you’re in crisis, making the decision to seek help at your local hospital’s emergency room can be life-saving. But, the emergency department isn’t always the best place to get help for mental health issues. Here’s how to know when a mental illness is serious enough to make that trip to the ER. 

Are you having thoughts of suicide, self-harm, or harming others?

If you or someone else is having thoughts of suicide or harming others, this is always an emergency. Go to the ER if you can safely do so. But if someone is threatening suicide or homicide, and they’re refusing to go to the hospital, this is a job for 9-1-1. In most jurisdictions, 9-1-1 operators can connect you to a crisis response hotline. These crisis lines are staffed by trained volunteers who can help to calm the individual in crisis while you wait for first responders. 

Are you presenting with symptoms of psychosis?

While hallucinations and psychosis might seem like a good reason to head to the ER, this isn’t always the case. If you’re already connected to a psychiatrist, and your basic needs are being met, you might not be admitted as an in-patient. Yes, experiencing delusions is scary. But if you can connect with your usual doctor, that’s likely a better solution than the ER. 

That all changes, however, if you can’t reach your psychiatrist, or if it’s your first time experiencing these symptoms. Episodes of psychosis may be the result of an underlying mental health issue, but they can also be caused by other things. Certain drugs and medications cause hallucinations or delusions that may look like psychosis, as can head injuries. If someone is experiencing psychosis and they have no previous history of it, they need medical treatment immediately. 

Besides mental illness and drug use, postpartum psychosis can also cause symptoms of mental illness. Postpartum psychosis is different from postpartum depression. If your partner has given birth within the past year and exhibits any of the following, they need medical care:

  • Delusions or strange beliefs
  • Hallucinations
  • Paranoia and unwarranted suspiciousness
  • Thoughts of harming themselves or the baby

New mothers suffering from postpartum psychosis should not be left alone with their baby until they receive the additional support they need.

Alternatives to the ER

The truth is that mental health crisis services can be difficult to access. Unless you’re considered a danger to yourself or someone else, you may not require hospital admission for treatment as an in-patient. Mobile mental health units are available in certain parts of the country — mainly in the larger cities — but these don’t always guarantee quick access to help. The country does have a number of crisis hotlines, however, where trained volunteers can walk you through available resources in your area.

The best intervention is prevention

By far the best way of avoiding a mental health crisis is to be proactive. If you notice signs that your loved one is slipping into mental illness, support them to get help before they reach the danger zone. Check in with them regularly, build a relationship of trust, and try and reserve judgment as much as possible. If they know they can turn to you for help, they’re more likely to do so before it becomes an emergency. You should also encourage them to speak to a therapist, psychiatrist, or their family doctor. Our mental health professionals are available to speak to you seven days a week from the comfort of your own home.

Mental illness can be scary and destabilizing whether you’re the one experiencing it, or you’re supporting a loved one. If you’re unsure if you meet the threshold for going to the ER or not, it’s better to err on the side of caution. Taking care of your health is always worth it.

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