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Illustration by Bailey Mariner

If you’re having a mental health crisis, it’s important to get help right away — a trip to the emergency room might be your best option.

When you’re in the midst of a mental health emergency, it may feel like you’re entirely alone. This can seem especially true if you’re isolated or it’s in the middle of the night.

When something like this happens, you may ask yourself if you or your loved one should endure it — or if it’s serious enough to seek immediate help.

In mental health emergencies, you can go to the emergency room (ER) for immediate help.

Visits to the ER for mental health crises are rising. At least 6% of adult ER visits are due to mental health complaints, as well as 7% of pediatric visits.

This reflects an increase in mental health conditions, in general. According to a 2021 study, this was particularly true during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some common mental health conditions that may be seen in the ER include:

Keep in mind that this isn’t an exhaustive list. What matters most is that you should pursue care if you feel that your safety is at risk, if you’re having severe symptoms, or think you might be having an episode of psychosis.

“If you’re ever worried about safety, you should go to the ER,” says Isabelle Morley, PsyD, of Boston, Massachusetts, who specializes in helping individuals address mental health issues, as well as provides couples therapy and coaching.

“This means that if you think you or someone else might seriously hurt themselves or are having thoughts of suicide, seek immediate psychiatric help. The ER is the right place to go,” she adds.

If seeing a private doctor or going to a mental health center isn’t possible during a mental health crisis, heading to the ER may be your only option.

In addition to self-harm and thoughts of suicide, you should consider going to the ER if you’re experiencing the following:

  • visual or auditory hallucinations
  • delusions
  • OCD symptoms that have become dangerous
  • severe medication side effects
  • severe insomnia
  • aggression or assault
  • paranoia
  • confusion
  • mania

Going to the ER may feel like an overwhelming experience. Emergency rooms, after all, are often loud, busy, and chaotic, sometimes with long wait times.

And yet, it may be comforting to know that crisis services are available to help anywhere, anytime — and to anyone.

What’s more, most emergency rooms will aim to make your stay as comfortable as possible. Warm blankets, food, and drinks are all often provided as a course of action is determined.

“At the ER, you will be seen by a team of nurses and doctors, likely including a psychiatrist,” Morley says. In some ERs, you might be seen by a psychologist or other psychotherapist in addition to the medical team.

They’ll ask you questions about the following:

  • your current symptoms
  • when your symptoms started
  • your mental health history
  • any relevant medical diagnoses

If you’ve gone to the ER because of thoughts of suicide, you’ll probably be assessed for risk. This will help your medical team determine the level of care you need.

For other conditions, an evaluation will probably be included to determine a “working diagnosis.” This will help in carving out a plan of action.

Morley says that you’ll probably be asked if you already have a treatment team. This way “they can get in touch with your therapist or prescriber.”

You’ll also be asked to complete paperwork and answer questions about insurance and your medical history. This might seem like a menial task when you’re going through an emergency, but it’s a necessary one. Be sure to take your time and be honest about your medical history and any medications you’re already taking.

You may also receive crisis counseling, medication, and a physical exam to rule out any medical problems.

If your ER team believes you’re a threat to yourself or others, they may keep you in the hospital. This may be followed by inpatient treatment, intensive outpatient treatment, or outpatient treatment.

If the hospital doesn’t have an inpatient unit, you might be referred to a different hospital that does have one.

If you’ve been taken to the ER involuntarily — and your medical team believes you may self-harm or harm others — you may have to stay in the hospital (or another facility) for 72 hours. Any additional time will require a court hearing.

Thomas Pederson, emergency room tech, says: “Many of our patients actually go home at the end of the day with a referral to a regular therapist they can see 2 times a week.”

“This is generally at the discretion of the caseworker for that patient, but many patients say things they don’t mean and pose no threat to others after they’ve been talked to,” he adds.

In other words, how long you stay in the ER depends completely on your situation — and the amount of care you need.

If possible, absolutely bring someone with you. A friend or family member can sit with you as you wait to be seen and assist you with paperwork. They can also help you answer questions.

At the same time, they can make arrangements that need to be done at home — from calling your employer to feeding your pets.

Morley is just one expert who believes a crisis plan is a good idea. These “guides” can help you and your loved ones keep an eye out for certain symptoms — and the appropriate steps to take if another mental health crisis occurs.

A crisis plan should include the following items:

  • the phone number of your therapist or psychiatrist
  • phone numbers of friends and family members who are helpful in crises
  • your diagnosis and medications
  • things that have helped in the past

As mentioned, going to the ER during a mental health crisis — when you’re already scared — can feel intimidating.

If the emergency room isn’t an option for you, there are other ways to seek help during a mental health emergency:

  • Crisis lines. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, for example, is available to help 24/7. They can be reached at 800-273-8255.
  • Mobile crisis teams. These teams can provide prescreening evaluations. They can also assist with arrangements for inpatient care and community programs.
  • Walk-in services. These clinics and urgent care centers offer crisis counseling in a less overwhelming setting than a hospital. However, they may suggest hospitalization when necessary.

A mental health emergency may feel terrifying, but professionals are ready — and want to — help.

Going to the ER for a mental health crisis can depend on your symptoms. But, above all, it comes down to how you feel and if your safety is at risk.

If you or a loved one are experiencing any of the warning signs mentioned here, please reach out for support, whether that’s the ER, urgent care, or a crisis hotline. Be honest about how you’re feeling and where you’ve been. Doing so may be your first step toward treatment and recovery.