Everyone experiences a crisis at some point. No one is immune. Whether the person involved in crisis is a student, a staff member, or an administrator, the community is affected and may need to respond swiftly to provide meaningful intervention.
Here are a few crises that may affect your school and community:
- serious illness of an immediate family member
- serious illness of a student or colleague
- death of a student or colleague
- death of an immediate family member
- incarceration of a family member
- socioeconomic difficulties (job loss, homelessness, hunger)
- mental illness
- drug or alcohol dependence
- abuse, neglect
- natural disasters
- mass acts of violence
These are times when it’s easy to feel completely helpless and ineffective. You want to help. There are so many things you could say, but probably shouldn’t. It’s difficult to know how to be supportive.
The longer you work in education, the more of these experiences will occur within your community. “Reality” never leaves our side, and often struggle arises when we least expect it to rear its ugly head.
Here are a few tips on what to do (and perhaps what to avoid) in times of crisis.
Tip 1: Don’t Undervalue Presence
There may be nothing you can do or say. There may be a time when the person you’re supporting needs to be alone to fall apart in private, but unless they ask for privacy, being near may be the best thing you can offer.
You don’t have to say anything. You don’t need to come up with anything clever or offer any trite thoughts. Become comfortable with the weight of silence, and do your best to bear the burden of grief with someone for a short time.
It’s very difficult for the support person not to say things that seem encouraging in their heads, at times. Remember, a smile, a nod, even crying with the person if you are particularly moved, may mean the world to a person in need of comfort. There are some feelings that can only truly be conveyed in silence.
Grief can be uncomfortable, but we owe each other our presence in times of great sorrow. Knowing that it comes to us all, you will need a turn someday, too. Invest in those relationships and allow them to grow to sustain the community.
Also, be aware. Some people aren’t sure how to tell others that they need help. Be conscious of the people around you, and if something is off, pay attention. They may be hungry and not have enough money to eat nutritious meals (teachers do this, too - especially toward the end of the month, they may choose not to eat so their families can).
Things like self-harm, suicidal ideation, and mental illness can sometimes mean someone starts dressing oddly (like wearing a jacket outside when it’s very warm) or perhaps an extreme variation in emotion. Someone who has been depressed for months may suddenly seem joyful and generous. If a colleague starts giving all of their things away, for example, that should be a sign that something is not right.
Know the people around you. Know them well enough so that if they are struggling, you can tell.
Tip 2: Prepare for the Long-Term
When crisis strikes, most people rush to the side of the person needing support (rightfully so). Unfortunately, after treatment begins, or following a funeral, people often face months, years, or a lifetime of “new normal”. When everyone leaves and the grieving are left to face their new lives alone, things can be completely overwhelming.
Write their names in your calendar for 6 months, or a year, or 5 years. Check in on their “progress”, or ask about the new things that are happening in their lives. Allow change and growth, or lack thereof.
Don’t try to control them or be so present that they can’t heal, but make yourself available when or if they need someone’s help.
Tip 3: Don’t Define Grief for Anyone Else
Some people cry when they receive bad news. Some faint. Some get really angry and throw things. Some people laugh hysterically (one of our writers had a student who went into hysterical fits of laughter anytime they were in trouble!). Some people show absolutely no emotion at all.
These are the moments’ extreme emotion - or lack thereof - are made for. Don’t be frightened, and don’t take it personally. A grieving person is likely to be so quickly filled with a large variety of emotions that it just kind of explodes or continuously oozes out without permission.
Some people have a delayed reaction to grief, too. It may be a year, or twenty (although that’s unlikely, it can happen), and one day out of nowhere, it hits them. Just be aware that every person you know is dealing with something. Some people may experience what you feel is “typical” grief, and others may blaze a trail all their own.
Don’t set any time limits or expectations, and certainly don’t try to make someone feel something or display an emotion they don’t. Grief is personal.
Tip 4: Be Practical
The world stops for no one. People experiencing crisis will still need to eat, stay hydrated, and sleep. They’ll also still need to pay bills, run errands, and take care of their families.
If someone has died, the person (or people) you are supporting may need gum, small packets of tissues, lip balm, germ-x, lotion, and a small notebook with a pen to write down things they want to remember from the visitation and funeral.
If a child has just been diagnosed with leukemia, the family may not need anything initially. Leukemia requires years of treatment, so they may need help with gas money for getting to treatments, help keeping their house clean to help the patient with a compromised immune system stay as well as possible, or someone to feed and care for their pets while they stay with their child in the hospital.
Sometimes, the most practical and helpful thing you can do is say to a person, “I have $50.What do you need right now?” Or, “I am completely free the next three nights. What can I do to help?” Be careful. They may answer! Be willing to follow through, or don’t offer.
Tip 5: Know When Someone Is In Shock and Take Action
When a crisis occurs, flight or fight kicks in, and some people literally freeze up. They can’t respond at all. You may have to take charge and physically get them somewhere (the hospital, a funeral home, etc…). Even people who are usually very independent and decisive are affected by shock in this way sometimes.
Ask the person you are supporting what they need. If they can’t even respond, try to think in the way you know they would normally approach a similar situation. Guide them toward the first step they have to take.
If you know they have a loved one who would be better at helping them than you are, a crisis is the time to call them. You don’t have to break any news that isn’t yours to break. Just ask that they come because their friend or loved one needs them.
Tip 6: Take Care of Yourself
It is exhausting to be in a crisis of your own, but it is also very tiresome to be swept up in caring for someone in distress. Be careful not to take on their crisis as your own. Take care of yourself so you can continue to provide them with care and understanding.
Intentionally set time aside for yourself and your family while someone else is caring for the person in crisis. Purposefully lay their cares aside so you can refresh yourself. Even professional caregivers and counselors have to do this when a client or case hits particularly close to home.
Tip 7: Know When to Call In Reinforcements/Professionals
There are things we cannot handle on our own. If you find a colleague or student in a situation that you cannot help with, ask for assistance. Know when you’re over your head.
For example, if deep depression lasts more than 6 to 9 weeks and the individual shows no signs of change or seems to be getting worse, consult a professional, especially if they are unwilling to speak to someone themselves.
If anyone ever expresses the desire to kill themselves, they seem to have a plan (no matter how loose) and access to a method, get help immediately.
If you aren’t sure a child is being abused, but you have concerns, report it. Allow them to begin a file on the child even if the suspicion isn’t serious enough to warrant any action at the moment.
On that note, here is some contact information to keep on hand:
If someone is in immediate danger, contact your local police by calling 911.
Mental Illness, Depression, Suicide, and Grief -
NAMI - National Association for Mental Illness
Text - 741741 - 24/7, free support via text with a trained crisis counselor
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline - 800-273-TALK (8255)
National Domestic Violence Hotline - 800-799-SAFE (7233)
National Sexual Assault Hotline - 800-656-HOPE (7233)
Homelessness and Hunger -
Family Homelessness - https://www.air.org/center/national-center-family-homelessness
National Runaway Hotline - 1-800-621-4000
Feeding America - https://www.feedingamerica.org/find-your-local-foodbank
www.211.org - This is “the most comprehensive source of locally curated social services in the U.S. and most of Canada” - they can help you find services for everything from food, shelter, and utility assistance information to addiction rehabilitation.Salvation Army - https://disaster.salvationarmyusa.org/