How to deal with someone having a mental breakdown

When someone is having a breakdown, it’s hard to know what to make of it and what it means. Since you’re here, it’s clearly important to you to discover how you can help someone going through a breakdown. Great! I’ve got your back!

In this article, you can find out:

  • What kind of a breakdown the person has
  • What you can and can’t do to support them
  • What kind of help you can offer long-term.

There’s much you can do to help someone with a (mental breakdown) depending on the type of relationship you have with that person. For example, if you’re their manager, the kind of help you can offer will differ from that of a good friend or family member.

If you want to know how to help your partner or spouse with a (mental) breakdown, I’ve written an article specifically for you.

Let’s start with looking at what sort of a breakdown the person you want to help has. In this article, I’ve split them up in three types of psychological breakdowns. However, since someone might word them differently, you’d need to ask questions to determine what’s really going on:

  1. A one-off emotional breakdown
  2. A nervous- or mental breakdown or burnout
  3. A combination of these

What is an emotional breakdown?

Someone might have an emotional breakdown when, for example, they’ve received what they consider to be bad or even horrific news. So, it’s crucial you make no judgement!

An emotional breakdown often involves a significant loss. That person’s life might suddenly have taken a turn for the worst, for example – a loved one may have landed in hospital, or they failed an exam. Perhaps they didn’t get the job they’ve been hoping for, or they’ve lost their job. Or maybe they have discovered their partner is cheating on them or their spouse wants a divorce.

Any situation that causes someone to be temporarily overwhelmed by feelings of stress or sadness they can no longer contain might lead to a breakdown.

In such circumstances, someone with a breakdown is at that moment not able to count on their normal defences. Think of defences such as what you might call a ‘stiff upper lip’, a can-do don’t-let-on and pull-yourself together kind of attitude – minimising the problem.

They’re likely to be in floods of tears and might cry uncontrollably. They may or may not be extremely angry and holler and shout. Or, believe it or not, they may even laugh uncontrollably.

Whatever their reaction, it’s likely to be a temporary one. That person will almost certainly recover in a relatively short space of time and deal with whatever they’re facing however challenging.

Do you suspect you’re dealing with someone going through a mental breakdown? Be sure also to read the section on how to deal with someone having a nervous breakdown further down.

How to help someone with an emotional breakdown

First of all – remember their interpretation of the problem or news is unique. Therefore do refrain from making a judgement about whether they should react in your opinion!

So, here are three steps to helping someone with an emotional breakdown:

Step 1

Just quietly sit with that person. You may even want to ask: “Can I just sit here with you?”. You may be able to put your hand on their lower arm, but be aware that some people don’t want to be touched at all.

Do nothing else, unless that person has already started talking about what has happened. In that case, you just listen. Quickly familiarise yourself with what you can say and what to avoid, hop over to my article on relationship communication and advanced listening skills. It will make Step 2 much easier.

Step 2

Let them cry, holler, be angry, sad, disappointed or whatever other feelings may present themselves. It may help to familiarise yourself with feelings by taking a look at my list of feelings and emotions.

I promise you – those feelings will most probably subside.

Depending on where you are, you may want to set a boundary around the hollering and shouting and ask the person to calm down a little. Reassure them that you are there to listen.

Do nothing else.

Step 3

When they’re slowly beginning to calm down, you might say something like: “Would you like to tell me what’s going on for you right now, or would you rather sit quietly.”

Just listen. Follow the advice in the articles about communication in relationships and advance listening skills (see above).

Know that, depending on your circumstances, you probably can’t ‘make it better’ for them, however frustrating that might feel. But giving your time and attention and listening to them will help them calm down and reassess their problem-solving skills.

Remember, they’re only in need of advice when they ask for it. And, even then, you should think twice about advising them. While they’re so emotional, they’re in a type of trance state until they’ve calmed right down. They’re vulnerable at that point. Also, if it concerns a personal matter, you’re very unlikely to have all the information. Even if you did, you would unconsciously have given it your own twist – not helpful to the other.

I hope this has given you a bit of a handle on how to help someone deal with a breakdown. Now, let’s look at how to deal with someone going through a mental breakdown.

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What is a mental- or nervous breakdown?

A nervous breakdown is an illness with a potentially long road to recovery. I have written about a mental breakdown extensively and to figure out how you can best help, I’d like you to familiarise yourself with the condition first. So, hop over to:

I’ll be here when you come back!

Hopefully, having read those articles, you’ll find it easier to understand how you can best help and support someone with a mental breakdown or burnout.

How to help someone going through a mental breakdown

Helping someone with a nervous- or mental breakdown requires much empathy, patience, stamina and flexibility. That person won’t have calmed down in a way someone with an emotional breakdown might. We’re talking about longer-term psychological distress which is likely to require professional help.

However, your support will also be vital, so let’s look at how you can help – depending on your relationship with that person. I’ve split the suggestions up – first for managers and colleagues and further down for family and friends.

A note of caution

Stay aware that you’re not a counsellor! Check with yourself that you don’t need to be needed by someone with a mental breakdown. If you do, then your help could become a hindrance without you being consciously aware.

Vertical banner: "How to help someone having a nervous breakdown

You’re a manager or colleague

Step 1

Follow the steps for an emotional breakdown at the initial contact. Reassure your member of staff you’re happy to listen again if there are any work-related problems. Be sure to keep the boundaries. Someone so vulnerable is also very suggestive and may ask for more than you can, or even should, give in terms of time and attention.

Step 2

Remember, the more attentive, empathic, resolute and professional your response, the less likely your member of staff might go off sick for an extended period. If possible, arrange for some flextime, time off or reduced hours, or even both.

Step 3

Deal with any work-related problems.

Your decisive action to resolve issues should aim to not only help the person with the breakdown but also benefit other members of staff. If the person is suffering from a breakdown on account of work-related stress, you’d want to ensure that you do all you can to reduce overall stress in a department. I promise you – you’ll improve productivity to boot!

Addressing the problem that contributed to your member of staff becoming ill, may help to keep them at work or ease their return back to work.

You’re a friend or family member

Step 1

  • Avoid making assumptions about what help the person with the breakdown might want or need – ask them. 
  • Be prepared that they can’t even think straight – let alone answer that question – they may be very ill.
  • Decide what you’re best at offering – practical help (think of shopping, for example), a listening ear, fun and laughter (probably in a much later stage) or advice, or all four. 
  • Think through how much time and attention you’re able and willing to give over the following months. Be sure to be realistic so that you can keep your promises.
  • Connect with friends or family who can offer the things you can’t.

Step 2

Suggest to the person with the breakdown how you can help, based on your decisions at step 1.

Check with them regularly – in person or by app, depending on what they find comfortable, how they’re doing. Be aware that while they’re ill, a question might to them feel like pressure. You could, therefore, say something like: “Just to let you know I’m thinking of you and I’m here to help with…. Be sure to keep your promises at the same time expecting that your friend or family member may not respond as expected.

Step 3

  • Keep track of their recovery. Expect it to be slow and often with one step forward, three steps back. 
  • If you can, when your friend or a family member is happy to see you, offer a listening ear, without judgement or unasked for advice – even if it’s something you’ve allocated to someone else in Step 1. Your emotional support is likely to be much appreciated – even if that’s not obvious at the time.
  • Try not to take any rejection personally – your friend is so short of spare capacity while they’re ill – they can barely cope with themselves, let alone consider your feelings.

Should you send someone to get professional help?

Your loved one going through a mental breakdown may well need professional help. However, telling someone they should get counselling is likely to make them run in the opposite direction!

Encourage, but don’t push your friend or family member to seek the professional help of their choice – a suitable counsellor in real life, a licensed online therapist or a doctor.

However, you could send them the link to my article on FAQ about a nervous breakdown (see above).

Finally

You’re such a star for wanting to reach out and help someone with a breakdown! It can be very scary to see someone in such distress if you’re not used to being around people overwhelmed by all sorts of feelings. So, I’m delighted to know you’re willing to step up to the plate!

I hope this article is of help, but by all means, leave feedback in the box that appears after you’ve rated it.

I wish you well!

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