Akin Mental Health Blog

What happens after calling 911 for a mental health crisis

7 min read

When a loved one is experiencing a mental health crisis and there is imminent danger to you, them, or anybody else, calling for emergency services through 911 will be the fastest way to get help. But calling 911 can feel uncertain. What happens when you place that call?

In this article, you’ll learn about the general procedure that emergency services follow when responding to a mental health crisis. Understanding what might happen after calling 911 will help you navigate the logistical and emotional challenges that you and your loved one are likely to deal with moving forward. We’ll also share alternatives to calling the police that are helpful options to know about.

What happens when you call 911

When you call 911, you will be connected to a dispatcher. This is a person who will gather information about what’s going on and pass that information to first responders. Let the dispatcher know you are calling for a “mental health emergency”.

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The dispatcher will ask a series of questions to understand details of the situation like physical descriptions: “What are they wearing? What do they look like?” and current behaviors: “What are they doing? Are they violent? Do they have access to weapons? Have they harmed themselves or anyone else?” The dispatcher’s goal is to make sure emergency responders are well-informed about the situation that they will be walking into.

If the dispatcher determines that you are dealing with a medical emergency, they may only dispatch paramedics, but if there is any safety concern, they will send the police.

You might feel overwhelmed or distressed while you’re speaking with the dispatcher - you are involved in the mental health crisis afterall and are fearing for the safety of everyone involved. In that case, consider having another friend or family member who is in a calmer state of mind to speak with the dispatcher.

What happens when the police arrive

In cases of medical emergencies, paramedics may be sent without police officers. However, in most mental health emergencies safety is a concern, therefore police are more likely to be the first responders. If police officers are dispatched, they will evaluate the situation when they arrive to assess risks and ensure everyone’s safety. Many counties and major cities throughout the U.S. will send mental health professionals along with the police to evaluate the situation. These are often referred to as “Crisis Intervention Teams”.

The officers and mental health evaluators will have the notes you shared with the dispatcher, and will attempt to speak to you and your loved one to gather more information. If possible, try meeting the officers outside first, before they speak with your loved one, so that you can share more details about why you called 911, your loved one’s mental health history, and their current state of mind.

It’s possible that your loved one’s symptoms will ramp up when police arrive, if they become angry, agitated, or confused. It’s also possible that your loved one will calm down and it can seem as though their symptoms have suddenly, completely disappeared. This is sometimes referred to as the “ambulance cure.” Nobody wants to be forcefully hospitalized, and your loved one may instinctively suppress problematic behaviors to avoid being restrained or taken into custody.

If police have determined that there is no longer a safety risk, they may not take any additional steps after speaking with you and your loved one.

If your loved one has committed a crime, they likely will be placed under arrest and may or may not be transferred to a hospital for psychiatric evaluation.

If the responders determine there is a safety risk due to a psychiatric emergency, they may decide to transfer your loved one to a hospital, voluntarily or involuntarily. An involuntary transfer can involve your loved one being handcuffed and taken in a police car or ambulance even if a crime has not been committed. Involuntary holds are sometimes referred to as 5150, 302, or other law enforcement code, depending on the state that you’re in. Once the officers hand off your loved one to a hospital, their role is considered complete.

Moving forward

It can be very difficult, emotionally, to call the police for your loved one. You might feel guilt or fear that your relationship with them will be damaged moving forward. These feelings are valid, and it’s important not to blame yourself. In all likelihood, you had a serious concern for your loved one’s safety or the safety of others and calling 911 was the best decision to make at that moment.

In the book, “I’m not sick, I don’t need help” Dr. Xavier Amador suggests, if possible, having an open conversation with your loved one about the incident. You would share your feelings about the situation, why you felt you had to take the actions you took, and hear out how it made your loved one feel. This is likely a challenging conversation but an important one for repairing your relationship and moving forward.

If your loved one is transferred to a hospital for psychiatric evaluation and treatment, be sure to connect with the hospital as soon as possible. Provide the treatment team with as much context about why your loved one was taken to the hospital and any past mental health episodes and treatment. Due to a heightened sensitivity to patient privacy, hospitals often won’t acknowledge that your loved one is in their care if they are 18 years or older. Nonetheless, you can still share critical information that will guide the team towards best supporting your loved one.

Alternatives to calling the police

It’s important to recognize that police involvement with a person with mental illness can be dangerous. About 1 in 4 fatal police shootings involve a person with severe mental illness. In many situations, calling 911 can be vital for ensuring everyone’s safety. However, there are alternatives to calling the police that are worth considering.

988: 988 is a new, national number for mental health crises. When dialing or texting this number, you will connect directly with mental health counselors. These counselors can help you evaluate the severity of the situation and speak with your loved one directly, over-the-phone or by text message.

Crisis Text Line: You or your loved one can also connect directly to crisis counselors by reaching out to the Crisis Text Line. Text HOME to 741741 for support.

Crisis Intervention Teams: Many counties and major cities have “Crisis Intervention Teams” available. These teams consist of mental health professionals who can come to your house to evaluate the situation and speak to your loved one. You can find out about the availability of these teams in your area by calling 211 or your local police department. Often, Crisis Intervention Teams arrive in plain clothes with or without officers which can make their support feel less confrontational to your loved one.

Current or past mental health providers: If your loved one has recently worked with mental health providers, reach out to them directly to ask for their support.

Taking your loved one directly to an emergency room (ER): If your loved one recognizes that they are in distress, and are willing to connect with a mental health professional, offer to drive them to a local emergency room or mental health clinic to receive psychiatric evaluation. If you are unsure where to access a psychiatric evaluation you can call the SAMHSA helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

Other options: Many alternatives to calling the police or going to the emergency room have been developed over the years, including "peer respite" and "crisis living room." Although an emergency response is sometimes the only option, it can be very helpful to know if these community based alternatives to calling the police are available in your area.

For more options to connect a loved one with treatment, take a look at our blog post about how to get help for a loved one with mental illness.


Calling 911 for a mental health crisis can be a difficult experience. Having an overview of the emergency response procedure when you do call will reduce some of the uncertainty around the situation. Join the Akin family program to gain more knowledge and tools to support your loved one through and beyond this critical time.

Matthew Montañez
Jun 15, 2023
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