When I came home from work, she was sitting on the back porch steps, crying.

Another friend was sitting next to her, arms draped around her shaking shoulders, trying to understand the words in between her hiccuped sobs.

“Is everything okay?” I asked, even though I knew this wasn’t just a normal bout of tears. Julie (not her real name) had been crying the entire day. When I left for work she had been sobbing in the bathroom, and (I learned later) had turned on the shower to muffle the sound of her emotion from the rest of the house so no one would come and check on her. No one knew how long she had stayed like that, melted to the bathroom floor, clutching a towel to her chest, the shower running hot and humid whenever she felt she was getting too loud. It’s possible she had been there for 8 hours.

I bent down in front of her, dropping my bag and holding her cold hands in mine. “Do you want to go somewhere?” I asked, noticing how tiny her usually buoyant frame seemed. “Somewhere where you can just relax and not have to worry about anything?”

“Yes,” she whispered without hesitation.

I knew there were places a person could go when they needed a break from the rest of the world, and even though I had no experience with finding such a place, it was clear that the terrified, exhausted girl in front of me needed one. “I’m having dark thoughts,” she whispered as my other friend continually tried to comfort her. “I can’t get them out of my head.”

My adrenaline kicked into hyperdrive at that moment. You don’t need to be a psychiatrist to know what that kind of language means. I told her I would be right back and ran to my computer, thinking the entire time, she needs help now. How do I get her mental health help right now?

At first, I was baffled. Should I look up mental health treatment centers? Are people allowed to just drop in to those places? Should I call a suicide hotline? Should I call my parents? Julie had been experiencing daily episodes of crying and insomnia for almost a month, and I had wanted to find her help for a while, but I had been waiting for her to take the reins. She hadn’t, and now there was no time to schedule an appointment with a therapist.

This is an emergency, I thought as her sobs pushed their way through my open window. She’s crying like she’s in incredible pain.

And then I asked myself – could I take her to the emergency room?

It had never occurred to me that someone could be taken to the ER for mental health issues, but as I logged onto the nearest hospital’s website, I realized that they indeed had a section of the ER for emergency mental help. I called the hospital up and explained that I had a friend who was experiencing a bout of severe depression with suicidal thoughts, and they told me I should bring her in immediately.

“Walk through the Emergency entrance and let the nurse know why you’re here,” the hospital operator told me. “We’re equipped for this type of thing and we’ll be waiting for you.”

An hour later Julie, our mutual friend and I were walking through ER doors, pillows and blankets and overnight bags in hand. I felt an immense rush of relief as we entered the building; there was support here. People who understood what emergency mental health meant. We were going to be okay.

Sometimes, people we love don’t have the ability to call up a therapist and take charge of their own lives. Their illness is too intense; they can’t see the forest through the trees, and their depressive spiral might simply become too big to lift on their own. If you suddenly find yourself in a situation where you truly fear for the health of a friend, loved one or family member, know that there is emergency care available. Most hospitals are equipped to handle someone who may be vulnerable enough to harm themselves, and almost always have contacts to therapists or specific treatment centers. If your gut is insisting that someone needs help now, treat their mental health issue like a broken bone or a medical flareup — they’re in pain, and need immediate medical attention.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.