October 12, 2022

Every Second Matters: Responding in a Crisis

Read time: 8 minutes

When you love someone who is struggling with substance use disorder (SUD), there may be many unpredictable situations that arise. Your friend or family member might exhibit dramatic changes in mood or temperament, and their behavior might be completely different from their baseline. Even as you offer all the support you can, your relationship with them may struggle. Many daily challenges can be difficult to navigate, but one of the most frightening is a crisis.

Types of Crises

A substance abuse crisis can take many different forms. Certain substances can induce erratic behavior seen in symptoms of psychosis. Co-occurring conditions like anxiety and panic and the circumstances derived from substance abuse — like financial or relationship instability — can trigger suicidal thoughts and actions. Overdoses are another danger, especially when a person has switched to a new substance or is gaining tolerance to one and continues to increase the dose. 

Many families try everything they can to help a loved one on their own, especially when they are hesitant to seek treatment. As the condition progresses and gets more serious, it gets increasingly more challenging to keep things under control. Although an emergency situation can occur even when someone is in treatment, having professional support can help navigate and prevent those situations. 

If you are having trouble encouraging your loved one to seek treatment, it might be time to consider an intervention.

Handling an Overdose

The first step to effectively and safely handling a suspected overdose is to recognize the signs. Someone may have overdosed if they:

  • Are unconscious or otherwise unresponsive to attempts to awaken them
  • Have bluish lips or fingertips, indicating a lack of oxygen
  • Demonstrate labored breathing like gasping or snoring, have slow or shallow breathing patterns, or are not breathing at all
  • Have skin that is clammy to the touch

You may also notice drugs or drug paraphernalia around the person.

In a suspected overdose, the first thing you should do is call 911. When you call, provide as much information as possible, including the substances you believe the person may have taken. This can help the paramedics prepare an appropriate response when they arrive on the scene.

As you wait for the paramedics, there are some additional steps you can take. You can turn the person on their side to limit the risk of choking if they vomit. If you have it, you can administer Narcan. Narcan, or naloxone, is a nasal spray that can reverse an opioid overdose within minutes. It is widely available at drugstores without a prescription and poses no harm if you suspect an overdose but aren’t certain. Even if an individual initially responds to Narcan, it is still crucial to have them receive emergency medical attention. Just as someone should always seek medical care for an allergic reaction after receiving an Epipen, the effects of Narcan can be temporary. If someone is unresponsive without breathing or a pulse, you can start chest compressions until help arrives.

Many states have enacted Samaritan Laws that provide legal immunity to the caller. This means even if you were using illicit substances with someone at the time of the overdose, calling the paramedics will not get you in trouble. These laws are intended to save lives rather than punish.

Handling Other Emergencies

An overdose is a medical emergency, and it makes sense to call 911 when it happens. In other situations, it is not as black and white. If your loved one is acting in a way that makes you concerned for their immediate safety or the safety of others, calling 911 is the best way to protect everyone involved. It can be difficult to call the police concerning your loved one. We call the police for criminals, and we would never want to equate someone we love to a criminal. 

You can communicate this to law enforcement by informing the dispatcher that this is a psychiatric emergency. Ask if they have any Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) officers specializing in mental health crises. If the responders are aware of what they are walking into, it can decrease the likelihood of escalation or violence. The state of CIT availability varies widely by location, so looking into it beforehand can help better prepare you.

For mental health crises — particularly concerning suicidal thoughts and actions — the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is vital. Call or text 988 to be connected to a local crisis center and speak with a trained counselor. 

Additional Resources

When you are concerned that a crisis is imminent but there is no immediate danger, there are other resources. If your loved one is seeing a mental health professional, you should reach out to them for guidance. 

Additionally, most counties have services referred to as mobile crisis units or mobile response teams. These teams often contain both law enforcement and mental health professionals that can respond to mental health crises and de-escalate the situation or possibly recommend hospitalization. The outcome depends greatly on the individual, situation, and available services. You can learn about these services by calling your local behavioral health authority or searching online. Calling the non-emergency police line is another way to learn about these services. They can point you in the direction of mental health resources and inform you about the state of CIT in your area.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) also offers a robust National HelpLine to assist in connecting people to resources. While it is not a crisis line, it can offer support and guidance to callers trying to help their loved ones. 

In crisis situations, it is critical to keep yourself safe. If there is a situation that makes you feel unsafe, you don’t have to handle it alone. Getting a professional involved can keep everyone safe. 

Nobody wants to be in a crisis situation. When someone is living with SUD, there is always a threat looming over everyone’s heads. The best way to prepare for crises is to prevent them. Seeking treatment from licensed clinicians can help you and your family move toward recovery, prevent emergencies, and navigate them effectively and safely if they do arise. Family-Centered Services specializes in helping individuals and families meet their treatment goals and live well in recovery. We offer a variety of services that are uniquely tailored to each individual. You can learn coping strategies and understand root causes through individual and family therapy, repair relationships in our Family Recovery Program, take the guessing out of your next steps with comprehensive case management, and have peace of mind with sober accountability services. Call (509) 991-5822 to learn more and get started.