Be Prepared for an Emergency


You will be more effective when crisis comes if you are prepared for it. Take time before there is a psychiatric emergency to learn about what to do if a crisis should occur.

  1. Learn about mental illness
  2. Smartphone psychiatric information app
  3. Know the laws in your state
  4. Identify community resources
  5. Develop an emergency contacts list
  6. Compile a psychiatric and medical history and keep it up to date
  7. Keep it all together

1.    Learn about mental illness.

  • LEARN ABOUT mental illness and its treatment. Our Media Library contains links to a number of informative videos on the subject.
  • GET FAMILIAR with frequently used terms. Our Crisis vocabulary can help.
  • ATTEND meetings or classes about mental illness offered in your community. Your public library, community college and local NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) affiliate are typical sponsors.
  • ENROLL in NAMI’s 12-week "Family-to-Family" course for families of people with severe mental illness. The course is free, and the information is practical and useful. Your local NAMI affiliate will have more information.
  • ASK TO MEET with your loved one’s mental health provider(s) to get/give specific information about triggers and effective interventions.
  • READ the family advocate issue of our Catalyst newsletter devoted to tools and strategies for family members and caregivers.
  • DOWNLOAD AND PRINT "Eliminating Barriers: Tips for Busting Through."

2.    Open this link on your smartphone for mobile psychiatric emergency information. It’s hard to remember everything you know during a crisis. Familiarizing yourself with the app now will make it easier to use if you need it.

3.    Know the laws in your state.

Several forms of psychiatric intervention exist to address mental health crises, but they differ from state to state. You must know the ones that apply where your loved one resides in order to use them. Separate laws apply to each of the following:

4.    Identify community resources.

  • LOCATE the NAMI affiliate near where you live. NAMI is a family support and advocacy organization for people with psychiatric disorders and their families. Local chapters hold regular meetings. Local and state leaders are usually knowledgeable and willing to advise on treatment options and procedures. Find your local chapter or call the national hotline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264).
  • NETWORK with other families you find who have loved ones with severe mental illness. Ask them what strategies worked – or didn’t – in getting intervention for their loved ones in your community. Ask for the names of caring and effective service providers they know and other resources they have used with success. Your experience may be different, but it’s good to know what others have been through.
  • IDENTIFY the local facility or emergency room that performs emergency psychiatric evaluations. Call or visit and find out what procedures are followed when someone in a mental illness crisis presents there. Request copies of any relevant handouts they have outlining procedures.
  • LEARN of any resources in your community for averting crisis or preventing one from escalating. One example is there a hospital “safe room” where families or law enforcement may take someone who is becoming symptomatic but not yet ill enough to be committed? Is there a mobile crisis team you can call?

5.    Develop an emergency contacts list

Having an up-to-date and complete list of key people, agencies and organizations to contact in an emergency makes it faster and easier to get appropriate help if one develops.

  • PROVIDE copies of this list to anyone who might be called upon to act in your absence.
  • MAKE multiple copies of the list. Keep a copy at home, at work, in your car, in suitcase you carry on travels – anywhere you might be when a crisis arises. Store it in your portable electronic device. Wherever you are or wherever you go, never leave home without it.
  • REVISIT and revise your list regularly to make sure names and numbers are up to date.

These are typical contacts in an emergency:

  • A stable and reliable third party or parties who can back you up in an emergency, e.g., come with you to an ER, come to your house to stay with children while you leave, give you other forms of support
  • Mobile crisis team
  • Psychiatric case manager
  • Program of Assertive Community Treatment (PACT or ACT) team
  • Local mental health center or county mental health department
  • Telephone hotline numbers for different crises: mental illness, suicide, domestic violence
  • Local hospital/emergency room
  • Non-911 police/paramedic numbers that are answered 24/7 (e.g., local precinct)
  • Crisis Intervention Team (CIT), if local law enforcement has one
  • Local advocates who can advise or support you
  • Sympathetic public official/elected official with whom you’ve established a relationship
  • Homeless shelter(s)
  • Friends of your loved one
  • Employers or others who will need to be notified immediately if your loved one is hospitalized
  • Legal Aid Services, public defender or private attorney familiar with mental health law

6.    Compile a psychiatric and medical history and keep it up to date

The briefest possible summary of vital statistics, psychiatric history and medication records that medical providers need in order to make informed choices during a crisis. Limit this page to key facts. Include a photo. If your loved one is unable or unwilling to identify him/herself in a crisis, this will help establish identity. Facts to include:

  • Full name and date of birth
  • Full address
  • Psychiatric diagnosis (e.g., schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder with psychosis)
  • Current medication(s) including names and dosages
  • Current symptoms
  • Any other pertinent medical conditions (e.g., diabetes)
  • Age at diagnosis
  • Current condition (e.g., suicidal, homeless, missing, vulnerable, violent, abusing substances, other)
  • Allergies (medications, food, environmental)
  • Treating psychiatrist’s name and number
  • Local service provider’s name and type (e.g., case worker, therapist)
  • Dates and locations of previous hospitalizations
  • Any medication(s) that has/have helped in the past
  • Any medication(s) that has/have not helped in the past
  • Any medications causing adverse effects (and what those adverse effects are/were)
  • History of symptomatic behaviors (e.g., running up huge debt, getting into car accidents, threatening family members, failing to care for basic needs)
  • Date(s) and charge(s) of previous arrest(s)/incarceration(s)
  • Key physical characteristics: height, race, age, weight, hair color
  • Full name, contact numbers and address for person(s) to be contacted in an emergency
  • Guardianship, an advance directive or other papers entitling you to be informed in a crisis
  • Leave space to add a description of clothing last worn in case that information is needed.

7.     Keep it all together.

We suggest storing all your key documents in a three-ring binder, a file box or some other easy-to-carry system you can take with you easily in an emergency.

Keep your storage system in a place where you can find it quickly even in the confusion of a crisis.

Using letter-sized, one-sided paper that can easily be faxed or emailed to police, hospitals and medical providers, mental health agencies and others will save time later.

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