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A Child in Crisis: Recognize the Signs & Know What to Do

Updated: Sep 26, 2023

There is an alternative to the emergency room in Connecticut

Recent studies have shown that children and teens are currently facing a mental health crisis. The pandemic put a halt on so many things. School stopped, and kids found themselves at home watching a global crisis unfold– one unlike any this country had navigated before. Imagine being a child moving along, without a care in the world, and the pandemic hits. At a young age, you realize the uncertainty of things and, for many people, sudden losses. The dramatic shift in daily life, changes to schooling, and watching as social media became a sounding board for fears shifted many kids into a new emotional landscape.

Since then, we have seen a rise in childhood depression, anxiety, and suicide rates. As a result, the emergency rooms (ERs) are flooded with children in crisis, and already long wait lists for mental health care have become even longer. On top of that, there are limited options for low-income communities and those who don’t speak English. How do we move forward and start to tackle this crisis?

The American Academy of Pediatrics, American College of Emergency Physicians, and Emergency Nurses Association call for resources and support to face the growing mental health crisis among children and teenagers, leaving ERs packed.

There are reports from around the country of the surge in psychiatry-related ER cases. One doctor in San Diego said that “the number of kids seeking psychiatric emergency care in her ER has grown from approximately 30 a month in recent years to 30 a day.” A study out of UConn showed youth ER visits for suicide-related cases have increased yearly since 2011. While Connecticut is taking steps to avoid crowding the ER by introducing mental health urgent care centers, no locations are in Southwestern Connecticut yet.

Several factors contribute to this overload hospitals are seeing:

  • Lack of Mental Health Services: In many regions, there is a shortage of mental health services and resources, which leads individuals to seek help in emergency rooms when they are in crisis because they have nowhere else to turn.

  • Stigma: Stigma surrounding mental health issues can deter people from seeking help until their symptoms become severe. When they do seek help, they may end up in the ER because it's seen as a more anonymous option.

  • Limited Capacity and Training: ER staff may not always have the specialized training or resources to effectively handle mental health crises, leading to longer wait times and potentially inadequate care.

  • Frequent Recurrence: Some individuals with mental health conditions experience recurrent crises, which can result in repeated visits to the ER.

  • Comorbidities: Mental health issues often co-occur with physical health problems, complicating the diagnostic process and treatment in emergency settings.

  • Shortage of Inpatient Beds: When a patient in crisis requires hospitalization, there may be a shortage of available psychiatric inpatient beds, leading to prolonged ER stays or being discharged without a treatment plan or adequate support, which can become a dangerous situation.

Be Prepared: Know what a mental health crisis is and how to avoid the ER if possible.

What is a Mental Health Crisis?

A mental health crisis can present in a variety of ways. A mental health crisis refers to a situation in which an individual's mental and emotional well-being deteriorates to the point that they are unable to cope with their current circumstances. These crises can take various forms, from acute episodes of severe anxiety or depression to more serious situations, such as suicidal thoughts and/or self-harm. Mental health crises affect people of all ages, backgrounds, and walks of life.

  • Extreme Emotional Changes: Children in crisis may exhibit extreme mood swings, intense anger, sadness, or irritability that seem disproportionate to the situation.

  • Withdrawal and Isolation: Some children may withdraw from friends and family, preferring to spend time alone or avoiding social interactions.

  • Physical Symptoms: Unexplained physical complaints like headaches or stomach aches can indicate emotional distress.

  • Changes in Sleep Patterns: Insomnia or excessive sleeping can indicate underlying mental health issues.

  • Difficulty Concentrating: A noticeable decline in a child's ability to concentrate or perform well in school can signify a crisis.

  • Regression: Children may revert to outgrown behaviors, such as bedwetting, thumb-sucking, or clinginess.

  • Expressing Suicidal Thoughts: In children and teenagers, expressions of suicidal thoughts or self-harming behaviors should be taken very seriously.

If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis, it's essential to seek help promptly. Some steps to consider include:

  • Contact a Crisis Hotline: Call or text 988 to speak with trained professionals who can provide immediate support and guidance. You can also chat online at Support is also available in Spanish and American Sign Language. If a person is in imminent danger, call 911 first.

  • Seek Professional Help: Encourage the individual in crisis to seek help from a mental health professional, therapist, or counselor.

  • Stay Supportive: Offer emotional support and reassurance to the person experiencing the crisis. Listen without judgment and let them know they're not alone.

  • Safety Planning: If appropriate, create a safety plan that outlines steps to take when in crisis and identifies people to contact for support. The Hub has created a safety plan template. Download it now.

  • Remove Immediate Hazards: If there are any immediate hazards, such as weapons or dangerous objects.

  • Stay Calm: It's important to remain calm and composed while helping your loved one.

Remember that mental health crises are serious and often require professional intervention.

Mobile Crisis: What it is and how it can help you

Mobile Crisis Intervention Services (MCIS) is for children and teens experiencing a mental health crisis. The program has a team of trained mental health professionals, which includes licensed clinicians, social workers, and psychiatric nurses, who can respond immediately by phone or face-to-face when a child is experiencing an emotional or behavioral crisis. The program aims to reduce hospital emergency room visits by serving kids in their homes and/or communities. Some of the core services provided include:

  • Rapid Response: MCIS teams are typically available 24/7 and can respond quickly to crises in the community. They are often dispatched to where the crisis occurs, whether it's a home, school, workplace, or public space.

  • Assessment and Triage: When responding to a crisis, MCIS professionals thoroughly assess the individual's mental and emotional state. They triage the situation to determine the level of care needed, which may include referrals to outpatient services, crisis stabilization units, or hospitalization if required.

  • De-Escalation: MCIS teams are skilled in de-escalating crisis situations. They use communication and de-escalation techniques to help individuals regain a sense of control and safety while avoiding the use of force or coercion.

  • Safety Planning: Professionals working on MCIS teams help individuals develop safety plans to prevent future crises. These plans often involve identifying triggers, coping strategies, and sources of support.

  • Referrals and Coordination: MCIS teams have access to a network of mental health resources and can make referrals to appropriate services, including outpatient therapy, substance abuse treatment, or crisis stabilization programs. They also coordinate with existing mental health providers.

When to Call:

If a child is in crisis, dial 211 and select option 1. You should call when:

  • Having a behavioral crisis that’s too much to handle on your own.

  • Uncommunicative to you.

  • Out of control or destroying property.

  • At risk of acting violently or dangerously.

  • At risk of threatening to hurt him/herself or others.

If a person is in imminent danger, call 911 first.

What Will Happen:

  • You will be connected to a trained Mobile Crisis counselor.

  • Mobile Crisis will help resolve the crisis immediately over the phone or will come immediately to your location.

  • Mobile Crisis responds 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

  • Services are confidential, and there is no cost to the family.

Other Local Resources:

24-hour Helpline – 203-661-1911

Families, children and community providers may call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and speak to a live counselor.

Remember, help is always available for you and your family, and it’s okay to ask for help! For additional mental health treatment and support resources, visit

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