Connecticut will forever have a space in my heart. Although it is tiny in comparison to its forty-nine teammates, I can say with certainty that no place I have ever lived holds a candle to its natural beauty: the picturesque coastline, the breathtakingly colorful leaves of Indian Summer and the miles and miles of gently rolling hills provided a backdrop for some of my favorite family memories: hayrides through the pumpkin patch, visits to a nature center, interacting with farm animals, maple syrup tapping and seriously competitive snowball fights, to name a few.
Indeed, for a weary mother of three little ones, the woods in and around Stamford, CT became my greatest ally. The promise of an “adventure walk” would motivate my babes to throw on their clothes, lace up their shoes, and pile into the minivan without protest. These kids loved being set loose in nature to run along paths, climb on fallen tree trunks and toss rocks into a stream to see who could make the biggest “kerplunk.” Their minds and senses thoroughly engaged, there was no arguing and no whining about being bored.
On one particularly crisp September morning, our energetic posse, including two neighborhood friends, had hiked about a mile into a nature preserve along the banks of a cheery stream when the unanimous decision was made to stop for a bit and set up our picnic. As the youngest ones munched on string cheese and rested their weary legs, a few of the older kids searched around for walking sticks and turned over rocks in hopes of finding something repulsive enough to scare each other. Relaxed and happy, I breathed in the cool air and gave myself a mental high-five for orchestrating such a fine day.
And a few seconds later, someone let out a piercing scream, "Mom, help!" which abruptly interrupted my daydreams.
My heart stopped as I turned around to find my nine-year-old son laying on the ground gripping his arm and bleeding from his head. He had slipped while climbing a mossy boulder and fell backwards onto a large rock just below. A kid who never let a few bumps or bruises interfere with fun, I knew by his subdued demeanor that this was serious. Within seconds, our little outing in the woods switched from an adventure to an emergency.
Without skipping a beat, the kids quickly packed up our belongings and trotted briskly back along the path, taking turns carrying my toddler. I followed closely behind with my son hoisted onto my back; his arm supported by a makeshift sling I had fashioned from my sweatshirt. Blood streamed down his face and onto mine. When we finally arrived at the parking lot, the kids hopped into the car and we drove immediately to the nearest hospital emergency room. We must have been quite the site as we arrived, a mom carrying a bleeding, injured child in her arms and four little “ducklings” in tow behind her. But within a few hours, my son’s head was sutured, his arm set and casted and we were on our way home.
There are several memorable, even instructive, “morals” to this story, the least of which would include the pride I felt in watching these young children react so well in a crisis. I know many adults who might have lost their composure at some point along the road.
But the actual reason for recounting this memory is to point out that in this particular emergency, I knew that care was available and I did not hesitate to find it.
The protocol for physical injuries was pretty clear to me.
· For bleeding, broken bones or chest pain–go to the hospital emergency room (or dial 911).
· For sore throats, fevers, rashes or persistent aches and pains–go to an Urgent Care or see your GP/Pediatrician asap.
· For non-urgent issues involving special parts of the body, see a specialist.
· For scrapes, blisters, a cold or light cough–administer care using OTC supplies if needed.
But as a mental health professional, it got me thinking about mental health emergencies. Do we all know what the protocol is for people in emotional pain or struggling with an acute cognitive disorder? As parents, friends, employers and family, do we feel equipped to suggest the right level of mental health care and do we know how to help someone find it? Should we seek help when we are going through a rough season or only in times when we cannot get out of bed? Who are the different professionals who can help?
Last week I was fortunate enough to interview one of my colleagues who has decades of experience in answering these questions. In July, we will air our conversation on our CCA podcast series about mental health. Here are some highlights of our conversation in advance:
· Mental health emergencies are as real and as valid as physical emergencies, and most hospitals are equipped to provide emergency care. Even if a hospital does not offer emergency mental health care, an
intake specialist can evaluate a mental health emergency and make a referral to the appropriate level of care needed.
· Although suicidal ideation (or any thoughts of self-harm) may be the most commonly known mental health crisis, there are several more, such as visual or auditory hallucinations, delusions, harmful OCD symptoms, severe side effects of medications, aggression or assault, severe insomnia, confusion, paranoia, and mania.
· Substance abuse issues (such as alcohol or drug use) can require emergency care when a user is suffering from respiratory or cardiac issues or is in danger of dying from an overdose.
· Even during a hospital visit, HIPAA laws still protect sensitive information (such as receiving psychiatric treatment or having a diagnosed mental illness) from being disclosed to anyone outside of the necessary care team.
In addition to hospitals, daytime urgent care centers for mental health are sprouting up as well. Behavioral Health Urgent Care at SSM Health is the St. Louis area’s first urgent care/walk-in clinic dedicated to mental health. The clinic treats both adults and children in urgent need of care for mental health crises. This service provides immediate access to behavioral health care to address non-emergent issues.
Specialists and treatment centers can be sought for mental health disorders such as OCD, ODD, Schizophrenia, ADHD, eating and substance abuse disorders. Treatment can include in-patient or residential care, out-patient programs, counseling and/or group therapy.
Licensed therapists or psychologists can be helpful in addressing different general issues, such as anxiety, depression and trauma, as well as relationship issues and struggles with self-esteem.
Finally, a licensed psychiatrist can evaluate the need for (and potential benefit of) including medication in the treatment process.
Although we have made great improvements, as a society, we still have some work to do when it comes to recognizing or seeking help for mental illnesses and crises. Let’s continue to educate our friends and families and help lower our collective anxiety or shame around the topic. Like my son in the woods, we can all get better at saying, “help!”