Every May, families, friends and communities bring awareness to mental health by joining together, sharing personal stories and experiences, and walking with neighbors to show support. Along with the special activities celebrated every May by organizations such as the National Alliance on Mental Health and Mental Health America, there is support available throughout the year.

Support for Parents/Caregivers, and the Kids They Love; When There is a Family Crisis

By Doug Gray, MD & Melissa McHarg

NSPL_LogoHow to manage during a crisis? First you have to judge whether the crisis is an emergency.  If there is a risk of a family member harming themselves or others, or if their mental status does not allow safe transport to a hospital emergency room for evaluation, it’s important to call 911 for help.  If you are in crisis, and need to talk to someone, the national suicide hotline is available 24/7 at 1-800-273- TALK.  If the situation is not an immediate crisis, seek an appointment locally with a mental health provider.  Start with the providers covered by the military, the VA, or your insurance.  You can talk to your primary care provider to see if they have recommendations.

How can I help a child during a very rough time (when I can barely hold it together myself)? When one family member faces an emotional crisis, every member is also greatly affected by the crisis and its outcomes. For example, a suicide attempt is one of the most difficult situations a family may ever face. If you are a parent or caregiver, what is the best way to talk to a child about a traumatic event?

It is important, and helpful, to speak to a child about difficult events. Without the support of family or other caring adults, a child will try to make sense of the confusing situation on his or her own. Without reassurance, they may blame themselves, act out, or experience other negative effects.  Focus on listening to your child, and answering their questions.  Talk with them in a way that fits their age and understanding of the world.

You can help a child, and there is help for you. While it is important to assist younger members of a family during a crisis, as a caregiver you do not have to go it alone –you and your family will both be stronger if you stay connected to the people and things in your life that give you the support you need.  After a mental health crisis, you and your family may both benefit from additional assistance:

  1. Take care of yourself first:

There is a reason that flight attendants ask you to put on your own oxygen mask first in the event of an emergency –you cannot help someone else, including your child, if you don’t take care of yourself first. If you make sure you are meeting some of your own needs, you’ll have the energy and focus you need to assist those depending on you. The basics include taking time to eat, sleep, and exercise.  Research shows that breathing or meditation exercises can be helpful. Free or low-cost apps are available.  The National Center for Telehealth and Technology also has free mobile applications for Service Members or Veterans, with apps for parenting, PTSD, quitting smoking, breathing, and others.

  1. RM_MIRECC_LOGO_W_TAGLINE_RGB    Find out how to talk to your children about the crisis:

Children have different needs at different times, and learning more about each developmental stage may help you best respond to your own children.  The goal for  all ages is to provide honest, reassuring information. How much to share may be very confusing.  The 24-page booklet and website from Rocky Mountain MIRECC for Suicide Prevention provides detailed information on speaking with a Preschool child, a School age child, or with teens. The accompanying videos or Spanish video (or DVD provided with print booklet) gives real-life demonstrations of how a conversation with each age group might unfold.

  1.     Introduce ideas related to mental health as appropriate:NAMIlogotagline-1color-lg

Even very young children can understand simple related concepts such as sadness (ex, “Your Grandpa has been feeling very sad lately.”). As a child grows he or she will be able to understand more about good mental health, as well as symptoms of mental illness. Organizations like the National Alliance on Mental Health and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration websites offer good overviews of topics such as depression, mental health and substance use, and suicide prevention.  The Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center has good resources for talking to family/children about traumatic brain injury, and there are also materials to help you discuss PTSD with a child.

  1. Look for ways to teach resiliency:

The idea of resilience – regaining strength and health (and perhaps growing even stronger) may be taught.  Parents can learn the skills and conditions that help promote resilience, and ways to teach your child how to be resilient at different ages.  Online programs geared for military families, include Focus, Sesame Workshop, and Caregiver & Family Trainings. You can also role model resiliency.  Some people experience great relief through creative expression.  You might play music, write your story, try out visual arts or comedy, or even make a film. Families can practice volunteer work together.


  1.     Monitor for signs of distress, and seek help if needed:

This page from MentalHealth.gov gives guidelines and what to do if your child shows signs of distress.  Each state has federally-funded free or low-cost mental health services, which can be found using the SAMSHA locator or calling their helpline. This page also includes more info on finding help specifically for children, including the National Association of Free & Charitable Clinics. Give an Hour provides Service Members, Veterans and their families with free, confidential mental health services (videoconferencing for rural areas).

  1. Let others support you and your loved ones: 

In addition to formal professional assistance, your friends and family, there are other sources of peer-based support that could help connect you with others who share similar experiences. NAMI also has local affiliates across the country, with many support programs including Family-to-Family. A listing of other support groups as well as Mental Health America Affiliates may be found here.  Organizations such as the National Military Family Association, Blue Star Families and Military One Source offer opportunities to connect with other military families.


When your family member returns home, it’s very helpful to keep exploring new connections and sources for support as your family moves forward.  The American Association of Suicidology has many resources for suicide attempt survivors and their families, including support groups. SAMSHA has several brochures for taking care of yourself after a suicide attempt and recovering from a suicide attempt. The Defense Centers of Excellence runs an Outreach Center with phone, email and live chat support for questions about psychological health or traumatic brain injury. Finally, you may find additional resources on the Rocky Mountain MIRECC educational webpage, including a resource guide for family members following a suicide attempt or suicide (Spanish).

If you and your family are faced with a suicidal family member or other serious crisis, this is likely one of the most difficult things you may ever face. If you have the tools you need, you will be prepared to assist your family and find long term solutions that are right for each of you. With the right approach, and the right support, there is recovery and hope.