Mental health conditions are common in the United States, affecting about 1 in 5 Americans.
While mental illness can be a chronic issue, requiring ongoing treatment in many cases, there also can be emergencies. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly 5 million Americans visit emergency departments each year for mental health-related problems.
Mental health and substance abuse disorders are the second-most common reason for emergency department visits, according to a study in The Journal of Emergency Medicine.
Find out what makes something a psychiatric emergency and what you should do if you or a loved one is experiencing an emergency.
What Is a Psychiatric Crisis?
If a person’s mental health condition is causing a risk of harm — either to themselves or to others — it’s considered a psychiatric emergency or crisis. Potential harm includes injury, death, or incapacitation to themselves or others.
Psychiatric emergencies can be triggered by a specific event or stressor, or be the result of multiple factors. They can also result from chronic mental health conditions, such as anxiety, depression, psychosis, substance abuse, or other mental illnesses.
According to Psychiatric Annals, the number of emergency department visits for psychiatric reasons is on the rise.
Common Mental Health Emergencies
A number of mental health conditions can cause a psychiatric emergency.
Substance abuse refers to the use of and possible addiction to:
- Illegal substances (such as cocaine).
- Excess use of alcohol.
- Misuse of prescription medicines (such as opioids).
- Misuse of over-the-counter medicines.
According to a report in the Western Journal of Emergency Medicine, about 4.9 million people visit emergency departments for drug-related reasons. Of those, more than half are for substance use disorders.
Mood disorders cause significant fluctuations in a person’s mood. Sometimes the changes can occur rapidly, leading to potential emergencies.
About 1 in 10 American adults experience a mood disorder in any given year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. More than 1 in 5 Americans will experience mood disorders during their lifetime.
Common mood disorders include:
Anxiety is the most common type of mental health condition in the United States. People with anxiety disorders may be triggered by specific events or environments, while others may experience continuous symptoms. Chronic feelings of panic or worry can make it difficult for people to perform everyday activities.
Some people may have a panic attack, which is a brief period of intense fear and/or anxiety. Others may feel intensely overwhelmed and experience what they may call a “nervous breakdown,” which is not an official medical term.
Common anxiety disorders include:
If your anxiety disorder poses a threat to you or others, it could result in a psychiatric emergency.
Suicidal thoughts or actions
People experiencing suicidal thoughts or actions may be at immediate, serious risk for self-harm or suicide and require emergency intervention.
Millions of Americans deal with suicidal thoughts or make plans to act on their thoughts. According to Mental Health America, more than 10 million American adults have serious thoughts of suicide — and the number is rising. Suicide ranks as the 10th-leading cause of death in the United States. It is the second-leading cause of death among children, adolescents, and young adults.
Psychotic disorders can cause people to lose touch with reality. They may experience delusions (false beliefs) or hallucinations (seeing, hearing, or feeling something that isn’t there).
People suffering a psychotic episode may put themselves or others at risk if they perceive something that isn’t real.
One common type of psychotic disorder is schizophrenia. Other factors that can cause or contribute to psychotic episodes include drugs and alcohol, bipolar disorder, and even some physical health conditions like brain tumors.
What Should I Do During a Psychiatric Emergency?
It may be difficult to determine if you or someone else is experiencing a psychiatric emergency. Unlike a traditional medical emergency, the signs of a psychiatric emergency may not be as clear.
However, if you believe a mental health condition poses a risk of self-harm or harm to others, you should seek emergency help immediately.
UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital’s Psychiatric Emergency Services are available 24/7 for people who need help. A doctor referral is not required, and we can provide a variety of services for any psychiatric emergency. Call 412-624-1000 or 1-877-624-4100 (toll-free) for more information.
For immediate help and counseling, you can call a mental health crisis line such as resolve Crisis Services. Call 1-888-7-YOU CAN or 1-888-796-8226, or visit the walk-in crisis center at 333 North Braddock Ave.
Other psychiatric crisis lines include:
- 911: For emergency conditions, call 911. Mention that there’s a psychiatric emergency.
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: Available 24/7. Call 1-800-273-8255 (TALK).
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration: Call 1-877-726-4727, between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., Monday through Friday
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Can I Go to the Emergency Department for Mental Health?
If you are dealing with a psychiatric emergency and need immediate help, call 911. Explain the nature of your emergency.
You can also go to your local emergency department for help. Some emergency departments have psychiatrists on staff. If not, the emergency department can help you find psychiatric care.
Emergency departments treat millions of psychiatric emergencies each year in the U.S. Common reasons for visits to the emergency room include:
- Suicide attempts.
- Threatening or causing harm to yourself or another person.
- Drug and alcohol use.
- Hearing voices or hallucinations.
Can I go to Urgent Care for Mental Health?
Some urgent care locations provide psychiatric care. Call the location ahead of time and ask if they can help or provide a recommendation for you.
Treatment for Psychiatric Emergencies
If you visit an emergency department for psychiatric care, treatment likely will depend on the severity of the emergency. Doctors will evaluate your emergency for several factors, including any risks you may pose to yourself or others and any underlying mental health conditions.
What Will My Treatment Be Like?
Many different types of treatment are available for those experiencing a psychiatric emergency.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, treatment often includes medication, crisis counseling, and referrals for further treatment. Care may be provided as an outpatient service or partial-hospitalization (not requiring 24/7 care). In severe cases, care may require inpatient care or hospitalization.
What Should I Bring to Stay
at a Psychiatric Hospital?
Psychiatric hospitals provide most of the items you’ll need for an inpatient stay, including blankets, linens, and toiletries.
However, there are some items you can bring:
- Insurance information.
- List of medications.
- Comfortable clothes (without drawstrings).
- Comfortable shoes (without laces).
- Books or magazines to read.
Can I Have My Phone in a Psychiatric Hospital?
Most psychiatric hospitals do not allow inpatients to keep personal cell phones. At UPMC, our patients can have visitors and make phone calls in a supervised area with a hospital-provided phone. Visitors will be screened to ensure they do not bring in any prohibited items.
To allow time for treatment, visiting hours or phone call access may be limited. You may be able to arrange other visiting hours. Video visits also are an option if in-person visits are unavailable.
Psychiatric Emergency Treatment at UPMC
UPMC Behavioral Health Services has a team of experts available to provide help for a variety of needs, including psychiatric emergencies. The Diagnostic Evaluation Center is available for emergency and crisis situations 24 hours a day. Patients can visit without a referral.
For mental health emergency services, contact UPMC Western Psychiatric’s Psychiatric Emergency Services (PES) at 412-624-1000 or toll-free at 1-877-624-4100.
Simona Bujoreanu, Sara Golden Pell, Monique Ribeiro, Clinical Handbook of Psychological Consultation in Pediatric Medical Settings, Psychiatric Emergencies: Self-Harm, Suicidal, Homicidal Behavior, Addiction, and Substance Use. https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-030-35598-2_31
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, FastStats, Mental Health. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/mental-health.htm
National Alliance on Mental Illness, Getting Treatment During a Crisis. https://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Treatment/Getting-Treatment-During-a-Crisis
National Alliance on Mental Illness, Navigating a Mental Health Crisis. https://www.nami.org/Support-Education/Publications-Reports/Guides/Navigating-a-Mental-Health-Crisis/Navigating-A-Mental-Health-Crisis
Asim A. Shah, MD, Psychiatric Annals, Psychiatric Emergencies. https://www.healio.com/psychiatry/journals/psycann/2018-1-48-1/%7B1c64a4ce-8f5b-4c63-83dc-591543ce9d36%7D/psychiatric-emergencies
National Institute of Mental Health, Mental Illness. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/mental-illness.shtml
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Get Immediate Help. https://www.mentalhealth.gov/get-help/immediate-help
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UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital is a nationally recognized leader in mental health clinical care, research, and education. It is one of the nation’s foremost university-based psychiatric care facilities through its integration with the Department of Psychiatry of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. UPMC Western Psychiatric is the hub of UPMC Western Behavioral Health, a network of nearly 60 community-based programs providing specialized mental health and addiction care for children, adolescents, adults, and seniors throughout western Pennsylvania.