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Understanding the Symptoms of a Mental Health Crises in Adolescents

Teenage Mental Health

A mental health crisis is defined as, “a situation in which an individual’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviors put them in danger of harming themselves or others.” According to the CDC, there is a mental health epidemic occurring in the youth of this country. In the decade leading up to the pandemic, researchers found a 40% increase in “feelings of persistent sadness and hopelessness—as well as suicidal thoughts and behaviors” amongst young people. This trend has only increased following COVID-19. 

With rising rates of mental health and substance abuse, as a parent it’s important to know the signs and symptoms of a mental health crisis. Recognizing what’s happening and knowing how to respond allows for early intervention and a greater chance of treatment. In this guide, we'll explore the phases of a mental health crisis, common behaviors indicating a crisis, and steps you can take to support your child during these difficult times.


Phases of a Mental Health Crisis


  • Pre-Crisis: This is the initial domino that falls, ultimately setting into motion what will become the crisis phase. It can be something small or large but it’s often a combination of internal and external stressors. For teens it may be something like academic pressure, family conflict, social isolation, trauma, substance abuse, or an undiagnosed or unmedicated mental health issue. This is the moment when the mental health needs of the individual exceed the available care. 

  • Crisis: This is the phase when things have gone critical. It’s become clear that something is wrong and intervention needs to take place. Whatever was happening in the pre-crisis phase has escalated and the individual is no longer able to function properly. This may result in suicidal ideation or attempts, extreme withdrawal, rapid mood swings, inability to perform daily activities, and/or destructive behavior towards self, property, or others.  

  • Response: Once the crisis phase is reached, something needs to be done or else you run the risk of permanent damage. This is the phase where your education and awareness of resources will be crucial. It’s important to work with a mental health professional in the response phase as they will be able to properly create and coordinate a plan of intervention and treatment.

  • Resolution: With appropriate intervention and support, the crisis can be resolved, and the adolescent can begin to stabilize. However, without timely intervention, the crisis may escalate or become chronic, leading to long-term consequences.


Behaviors Signaling a Mental Health Crisis


  • Suicidal Ideation or Self-Harm: This is very serious symptom and should be addressed immediately. Any expression of wanting to hurt themselves, end their life, or speaking about feeling trapped or hopeless are significant indicators of a crisis. Be on the lookout for signs of self-harm like burning or cutting. 

  • Sudden Changes in Behavior: Abrupt changes in behavior or rapidly cycling moods can signal an underlying mental health issue. Look for increased agitation, aggression, or sudden withdrawal from social activities. 

  • Extreme Emotional States: Intense emotional reactions that are disproportionate to the situation, frequent mood swings, or prolonged periods of sadness or irritability may indicate a crisis.

  • Substance Abuse: Use or abuse of alcohol and drugs is often a coping mechanism for mental health struggles. Unfortunately, it can exacerbate underlying mental health issues and worsen a crisis situation. 

How to Respond in the Event of a Mental Health Crisis


  • Stay Calm: As a parent, it’s our job to remain calm and composed. We need to reflect a demeanor that can work to influence how our kid will respond. 

  • Ensure Safety: Prioritize safety above all else. If your child is in immediate danger of harming themselves or others, seek emergency assistance by calling 911 or taking them to the nearest emergency room.

  • Seek Professional Help: In the event of a mental health crisis, a mental health professional is the best resource for guidance and support.  They can provide valuable resources, including referrals to therapists, counselors, or treatment centers specializing in adolescent mental health.

  • Offer Support: Make sure your teenager knows they are not alone and you are there for them through this trying time. Encourage them to communicate their thoughts and feelings and actively listen without judgment. You’re there to offer love and support. 

  • Develop a Safety Plan: Work with the other members of your family and mental health professionals to create a safety plan tailored to your child's needs. This plan should outline steps to take during a crisis, coping strategies, and emergency contacts.


Get Connected


Recognizing the signs of a mental health crisis and knowing how to respond effectively can make a significant difference in your adolescent's well-being. Get connected today with the appropriate resources so you can be prepared. 

If you believe your teen may benefit from specialized treatment for co-occurring disorders, Stonewater Adolescent Treatment Center is here to support you every step of the way. Call us today to talk about your options and develop a treatment plan. We’re here to listen and help you get your child back, better.