In the wake of tragic events — like those that took place in Seattle several weeks ago —communities converge to support each other and wonder what could have been different. When mental illness appears to play a role, the questions feel even more urgent: Why didn’t the person seek help? Where did the system fail? What can we do to prevent this from happening again? 

While it can be constructive to ask these questions, we must remember the context in which these questions are asked. The vast majority of the many people who struggle with mental illness are not violent. Approximately one in four people in the United States experience some form of mental illness each year. These are our neighbors, co-workers, friends and family members. If we’re not mindful of the prevalence of mental illness and the rarity of acts of violence perpetrated by those struggling with it, the discussions and questions that occur after tragedies can set us back rather than move us forward.

That said, the willingness to engage in a public conversation about mental health following a public tragedy can provide an opportunity for new knowledge and future growth. If we commit to continuing the discussions as part of our normal routine, we will reduce the stigma of mental illness and create supportive communities that are conducive to mental health recovery. 

 

Neighbor’s keeper

All of us come into contact with people with mental illnesses — it can be difficult to know when and how to help. It’s difficult to walk the fine line between being supportive and meddling. It can be uncomfortable or even frightening to start a discussion about mental illness. 

Among the most important ways we can help is to ask direct, respectful questions and earnestly listen to the responses. If you’re worried that a person is considering suicide or having violent thoughts, ask him. If you are concerned about someone, let her know. If you want to help, ask how you can do it. 

Additionally, there are warning signs that may indicate a person needs mental health treatment. They include:

•Erratic behavior or mood;

•Isolating from friends and family;

•Changes in sleep and eating patterns;

•Decreased interest in activities the person typically enjoys;

•Talking about suicide or violence or making threats; and

•Saying goodbye or tying up loose ends.

If you see concerning signs, try having a conversation with the individual about getting help. If that doesn’t work, try talking to professionals yourself for advice about what you can do.

 

Services within reach

Knowing that a person needs help is sometimes easier than finding it, but there is help out there. It may take research and persistence to access it, but it is available. 

The type of resources available depends on the urgency of the situation and the willingness of the person to get and participate in treatment. 

If a person with mental health concerns wants treatment, there are several avenues for accessing it. If they have insurance, they can call their insurance company and ask for referrals for preferred providers for outpatient mental health or behavioral health services. If a person does not have insurance, there are providers and agencies that offer sliding scale and reduced cost counseling. The best way to learn about these providers is to call 211 (the Community Information Line) and ask for referrals. 

If a person can’t safely wait to get in for an appointment with an outpatient provider — like Sound Mental Health, for example — there are crisis resources available. The person can call a crisis line, such as the King County Crisis Line at (206) 461-3222 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-TALK (8255). A crisis line can provide in-the-moment support and referrals. 

People experiencing a mental health crisis can also go to an emergency room for immediate assistance if they are unable to function safely due to their mental health symptoms. 

There are also resources available for people experiencing mental health symptoms who do not want help. If you are concerned that a person is an imminent danger to themselves or others, call 911. You can tell the police that you believe the person is suffering from a mental health issue and ask that they be taken to an emergency room for an evaluation. 

If the situation is less urgent, you can call a crisis line and ask for guidance and referrals. 

If a person is an imminent danger to themselves or others or is unable to tend to their basic health and safety due to a mental illness, involuntary mental health treatment may be an option. A crisis line or emergency room can provide guidance on the involuntary treatment process. 

 

You do make a difference

There are holes in our safety net and gaps in our knowledge when it comes to mental health and treatment options. These are systemic rather than individual failings, and we can work together to fix them. 

By engaging in regular, public discussions about mental health and community resources, we create a supportive environment for those in need of help. 

By taking a more active role in reaching out to those in distress and connecting them to available resources, we can create a healthier, safer and more stable community. 

KARIN ROGERS is crisis coordinator with Sound Mental Health, one of the most comprehensive behavioral health service providers in Washington state. To learn more, visit www.smh.org.