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Steps to Take if You're Worried About Someone's Mental Health

Author: Anne Robin, Jill Bolster-White and Derek Johnson
Date: 7/2/2021 5:02 PM

There are ways each of us can respond to concerns about a mental health crisis and get help to those in need.

As our community still reacts to the tragic shooting that took place on May 10, 2021 – which resulted in two deaths, one injured police officer, and trauma to an entire neighborhood – let’s try to understand ways each of us can respond to concerns about a mental health crisis and get help to those in need.

Mental illness and mental health treatment are complicated by stigma, conflicting laws, and lack of understanding about mental illness in general. It can be difficult to understand why decisions are made and why interventions are not always available when we need them. There are gaps in mental health treatment and services in our community, as there are throughout the state and the nation. Years of historic maltreatment, stigmatization, and community fear have kept many individuals from seeking mental health treatment when they most need it. However, any adult who has a mental health diagnosis can retain their rights while obtaining mental health treatment, medication, and other services from authorities.

It is important to remember that law enforcement agencies are limited in what they can do to help someone with mental illness who declines services. The right to refuse treatment is a balancing act of personal civil liberties and protecting both the individual and community.  Behavioral Health treatment is voluntary except when there is an immediate threat to oneself or others.

It is difficult at times to determine when an individual meets the legal threshold for an immediate threat or danger versus being a concern to family or community. Specifically, this critical decision hinges on an observation that person is a danger to themselves or others at the time of contact. Taking away an individual’s rights without due process is something that we should all be concerned about. It is equally important to remember that mental illness is not a crime, and nobody can or should be “locked up” for being mentally ill.

Locally, there are organizations working to fill gaps in services and connect with families and community members in need. The Community Counseling Center, Sierra Mental Wellness Group, Transitions Mental Health Association, CenCal, Community Health Centers for the Central Coast, and the SLO County Behavioral Health Department have a variety of programs and treatment levels to address behavioral health needs.

What steps can you take if you notice a family member or friend’s mental health is declining? Whether you're worried about a neighbor, you want someone to check on a loved one’s welfare, or you're hoping to find a listening ear, here are three steps you can take.

Step 1:

Be present and stay connected. Oftentimes the person who needs help first needs a support system made up of family, friends, and neighbors. Don’t blame or shame. Don’t criticize. Offer hope and encouragement. Try to avoid rushing the conversation and pushing your own agenda. Instead have patience and listen carefully to learn what the individual is thinking, feeling, and needing.

If you think someone is in danger of harming themselves or others, be direct and ask tough questions. Surprisingly, persons in crisis can be incredibly honest and candid in their responses. Helping someone talk about their emotional pain can help reduce rather than increase paranoid or suicidal thoughts.

Try to get the person to voluntarily seek care, including inpatient care, which is always the best option. Being supportive of someone in crisis is never easy, but you will rarely regret showing up for someone who needs you.

Step 2:

Seek guidance from a therapist, psychiatrist, or other mental health or behavioral health professional and call one of the mental health crisis or support phone lines listed below. When you are worried about someone’s – or your own – mental health, there are places to turn for guidance. These phone lines can help you if you know someone experiencing a mental health crisis; they will also provide valuable information and referrals in non-crisis situations.

Try these options:


Step 3:

If someone is an immediate danger to oneself or others, call 9-1-1 and request an officer that is trained in Crisis Intervention Training (CIT). Give as much information to the dispatcher as possible, including their behavior, symptoms, diagnosis if you know it, the nature of the emergency and if you suspect any weapons may be present. If you’re fearful that your loved one may intentionally cause an officer to fire their weapon, repeat this information to the dispatcher multiple times to ensure that those who will arrive on site are aware.

Even if 911 has been called, contact any of the local crisis resources listed in Step Two. You, your family, and the individual you are concerned about may still need assistance.

Remember, a law enforcement officer’s job is to safeguard and protect the public by enforcing the law. And it is not illegal to be mentally ill. Tragedies can and do happen, but there are steps each of us can take to keep our loved ones and community safe.    


Anne Robin is a licensed marriage and family therapist who has served as the County Behavioral Health Director for nearly eight years. In her tenure at the County, she has overseen the development of several programs to address mental illness, including the opening of the County’s first ever crisis stabilization unit. She has served public behavioral health programs and departments for over 35 years.

Jill Bolster-White has served as the Executive Director for Transitions-Mental Health Association for nearly 30 years. She is responsible for all of the organization’s operations and staff training, including new program design, client advocacy, and community education.

Derek Johnson has served as the City Manager for San Luis Obispo for about four years. He previously served as the City’s Community Development Director, Interim Finance and IT Director and Assistant City Manager for the City of San Luis Obispo.