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Calling 911 for a Mental Health Emergency: 5 Things to Know

By Daniel Taylor, Esq. | Last updated on

Sometimes, the only choice a family member or friend of someone suffering a mental health emergency may have is to call 911. Unfortunately, encounters between police and those suffering from mental illness have resulted in the injury or death of the person suffering the crisis.

In a case from earlier this year, a California woman was shot and killed by police after her family called 911 to report she hadn't taken her medication and was acting out, according to The Daily Journal. The officer was cleared of wrongdoing after an investigation found he was justified in using lethal force.

If you're dealing with a mental health emergency, what should you know about calling 911? Here are five things to keep in mind:

  1. When should you consider calling 911? As explained by one California county's Psychiatric Emergency Services guidelines, 911 should be called any time a person with a mental health condition creates a danger to themselves or others.
  2. Remain calm and follow directions. To make sure your 911 call is effective, be sure to remain calm, follow any instructions given by the dispatcher, and be patient. Experts also advise calling 911 out of earshot of the person with the mental condition.
  3. Let dispatchers and responding officers know about mental health issues. You should explain any mental health issues involved to dispatchers, but should also repeat these to any officers who respond to the call. That's because dispatchers often only communicate an abbreviated summary of facts to first responders.
  4. You'll want to identify yourself and your relationship to the person. You should also identify yourself and your relationship to the person suffering the mental health emergency to the dispatcher, and to the responding officers. This includes whether you are the person's primary care giver, or just an occasional visitor.
  5. Consider alternatives to 911. The Missouri Department of Mental Health recommends that if it is safe to do so, a person suffering a mental health emergency should be transported to an emergency room of a hospital that offers mental health treatment. The Department also recommends that if the person in crisis is currently receiving treatment, the person's care provider should be contacted for emergency assistance with crisis intervention.

The mentally ill are still afforded civil rights, even when you call 911. To learn more about specific rules and issues regarding mental health emergencies where you live, check with your state's department of mental health services.

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