How 'Mental Health CPR' Helped Me Save A Girl's Life

by Beth Levy
Originally Published: 
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I recently had the privilege of resuscitating a man who had somehow drowned in my local pool. He was dragged out of the water and placed near the ledge. Fortunately for him, everyone sitting near the side of the pool recognized that this man was having a medical emergency. It was obvious. He was blue, not breathing and pulseless. A friend of mine summoned me to the area knowing that I am a physician assistant and would be able to help. Adrenaline kicked in and with the help of a few other bystanders we were able to revive this man’s lifeless body while waiting for EMS to arrive and take over.

My two children witnessed my efforts. Both subsequently had many questions about the situation, which segued into the broader topic of helping people, the human body and safety/prevention.

Adults at the pool praised my effort. I felt proud to have been a part of this. Many friends at the pool discussed taking CPR classes. People started to speak of medical emergencies. All of this was amazing but got me thinking about another patient of mine from 10 years ago.

A female adolescent patient who I will call Sarah came into my pediatric office for a routine checkup. She was not blue, she was breathing, and her parents had no concerns. She was pleasant, had a normal physical exam and normal blood count. By all obvious standards she was doing very well. It wasn’t until I performed my adolescent HEADDS exam (asking her about her home environment, education, activities, drugs, sexuality and suicide/depression) that I realized this girl had a real medical emergency.

Sarah had frequent thoughts of suicide, poor sleeping and little pleasure or interest in activities. She had not confided this in anyone else, mostly because nobody had approached her on this subject. From the outside she appeared well. She had friends, good grades and did not cause trouble. When I told her that she didn’t have to feel this way, that there are many forms of help, she eagerly wanted more information. It was as if she had succumbed to the notion that feeling this way was just her destiny.

Sarah was happy to have me involve her family and discuss the situation with her mother. After a lengthy conversation she and her mother left armed with names of mental health referrals, when to go to the emergency room, and a new line of communication. I honestly didn’t think much about this interaction until a year later she came back for her annual checkup. We began with the usual medical questions, followed by her physical exam.

I don’t remember her exact words to me that day, but before I could even bring up her mental health, she said something along the lines of, “Thank you! Because of you I am in therapy and no longer have thoughts of suicide. You encouraged me to get help.”

This statement struck me, as I honestly did not realize what an impact I’d had on her. It seemed obvious and simple, yet no other adult in her life had broached the subject with Sarah, as it is not something we all speak about often. Unknowingly, I had performed “mental health CPR” on Sarah. It saved her life.

Ten years later, it still amazes me how many patients stay silent about mental health issues until they are specifically asked about symptoms. Patients are unaware of how to go about seeking help or ashamed to speak up about mental health symptoms. I do not believe that you have to be a health care professional to recognize a mental health emergency. Coaches, parents, teachers, friends, aunts, uncles, and co-workers have an opportunity to be a person to lean on until professional help can arrive.

In order to recognize this type of emergency, we need to normalize conversations concerning mental health. We need to have open discussions about mental health with our children, even if they are not experiencing symptoms. It can be hard, it can be uncomfortable, but in my humble opinion recognizing a mental health emergency is equally as important as recognizing a conventional medical emergency. Both are just as likely to put a life at risk.

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