Sharing Mental Health Data

Myles Dacres

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week and in this article we share expert insights on the appropriate sharing of mental health data.

Sharing the Right Information in a Mental Health Crisis at Work

Sharing the Right Information in a Mental Health Crisis at Work

Mental health awareness week is here, and a crucial topic for employers is how to handle personal data during a mental health emergency. This article clarifies when sharing employee information is necessary and protects both your workers and your organisation.

When Sharing is Essential

Data protection is important, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of someone’s safety. During a mental health emergency, the law understands this and allows you to share critical information to protect individuals and prevent harm.

What constitutes a mental health emergency? It can vary, but some warning signs might include:

  • Threats of self-harm or suicide: This is a clear indication of immediate danger.
  • Expressions of violence towards others: If a worker expresses violent intent towards customers or colleagues.
  • Extreme emotional distress: Someone experiencing a severe panic attack, uncontrollable rage, or intense despair might be a risk to themselves or others.
  • Changes in behaviour: A sudden withdrawal from social interaction or erratic behaviour could be signs of a mental health crisis.

If you notice any of these signs in a worker:

  1. Stay Calm and Assess the Situation: Don’t panic. Try to de-escalate the situation and ensure your own safety.
  2. Engage with the Employee: Talk to the worker in a calm and empathetic manner. Ask open-ended questions to understand their situation and assess the level of risk.
  3. Encourage Them to Seek Help: If possible, encourage them to reach out to emergency services or a mental health professional on their own. Offer support and let them know you’re there for them.
  4. Don’t Hesitate to Act: If there’s an immediate threat of self-harm or violence, or if the employee is incapable of seeking help themself, don’t hesitate to take action. Share only necessary information with emergency services or healthcare professionals.

Remember: Your prompt response can make a real difference. By acting quickly and decisively, you could help save a life.

Sharing Wisely: Balancing Needs and Privacy

In a mental health emergency, sharing information with the right people is crucial. However, it’s equally important to respect your employee’s privacy. Here’s how to strike a balance:

  • Focus on the essentials: Only share the information absolutely necessary to address the immediate situation. This might include the worker’s name, location, and details of the emergency (e.g., suicidal thoughts, violent behaviour).
  • Consider the recipient: Who are you sharing the information with? Emergency services will need different details than, for example, a family member. Tailor the information to the recipient’s role in providing help.
  • The “need-to-know” principle: Limit the information shared to only those who need it to address the crisis effectively. Avoid unnecessary disclosures that could compromise the employee’s privacy.

Here are some examples of proportionate information sharing:

  • Emergency services: Providing the worker’s location, details of the emergency (e.g., self-harm attempt), and any relevant medical conditions that might impact treatment.
  • Employee Assistance Program (EAP): Sharing the fact that a mental health emergency occurred and the worker’s contact information, allowing the EAP to reach out and offer support.
  • Next of kin: Informing them of the situation and the worker’s location, while respecting the employee’s privacy regarding specific details of the emergency.


  • Obtain consent if possible: If the employee is capable of providing consent, ask them who they’d like you to contact and what information you can share.
  • Document your actions: Keep a record of the information shared, with whom, and why. This demonstrates your commitment to responsible data handling.
  • Error on the side of caution: If you’re unsure whether to share a particular piece of information, it’s best to err on the side of caution and not share it.

By following these principles, you can ensure that you’re providing the necessary help while safeguarding your employee’s privacy during a critical time.

Building Trust Through Transparency

UK data protection law requires organisations to be fair, transparent and lawful under Article 5(1)(a) of the UK GDPR. Therefore, it is recommended that you let your workers know that you may share their information in a health emergency, including mental health crises. Develop a clear policy outlining what information might be shared, with whom, and how it’s kept secure. Make this policy readily available to your team.

While emergencies are unpredictable, some steps can ease the process. Here’s what you can do:

  1. Develop a policy: Create a clear guideline for handling personal data in mental health emergencies. This policy should identify who to contact, the type of information to share, and secure communication methods.
  2. Train your staff: Educate your team on handling sensitive information during a mental health emergency. Train them to identify warning signs and know how to respond appropriately.
  3. Keep it updated: Regularly review your policy and ensure your staff has accurate emergency contact information for each worker. Consider allowing separate contacts for general and mental health emergencies.

  The Legal Landscape

Data protection regulations exist to safeguard personal information. However, during a mental health emergency, there are legal justifications for sharing some information to protect the well-being of individuals. Here’s a breakdown of the two key legal situations that allow for information sharing:

  1. Vital Interests:
  • Life at Risk: This is the most critical situation. Data protection law recognises the “vital interests” legal basis, allowing you to share information when someone’s life, either the employee’s or someone else’s, is in immediate danger.
  • Examples: A worker expresses suicidal thoughts, threatens violence towards a colleague, or experiences a severe medical episode that could be life-threatening. In such cases, sharing necessary information with emergency services or healthcare professionals is not only permitted but encouraged by law.
  1. Legitimate Interests:

This lawful basis applies in situations where a worker poses a serious threat to themselves or others, but their life might not be immediately at risk.

  • Balancing Act: As for legitimate interest, this applies unless there is a good reason for protecting the worker’s personal information which either outweighs your interests or the interests of a third party.
  • Conditions for Legitimate Interests:
    • The severity of the risk: Is there a clear and present danger of self-harm or violence towards others?
    • Alternatives exhausted: Have you tried de-escalating the situation and encouraging the employee to seek help themselves?
    • Necessity and Proportionality: Is sharing information absolutely necessary to mitigate the risk, and is the information you share proportionate to the situation?


  • A worker displays erratic behaviour and makes verbal threats towards colleagues. You’ve tried to de-escalate the situation, but the employee refuses help. Sharing relevant information with security or mental health professionals might be justified under legitimate interest.
  • An employee experiencing a severe panic attack might not pose a direct threat to themselves or others. In this case, sharing extensive personal information might not be necessary or proportionate.

Important Note: These are just general scenarios. Every situation is unique. The decision of whether and what information to share ultimately rests on your professional judgement, considering the specific circumstances and the potential risks and benefits involved.

Seeking Guidance

If you’re unsure about the legalities of information sharing in a particular situation, it’s always best to err on the side of caution and seek guidance from a qualified professional or your organisation’s legal department.

Remember, you’re not alone. Resources like the NHSEmployee Assistance Programs, and mental health charities can offer valuable support to both you and your workers.

By following these steps, you can create a safe and supportive environment for your employees while ensuring responsible data practices during a difficult time.