How Crisis Counselors Help People Coping With Trauma

Woman smiling in therapy session

Blend Images - Ned Frisk / Getty Images

A crisis refers not just to a traumatic event or experience, but to an individual's response to the situation. The events that trigger this crisis can run the gamut of life experience, from developmental hurdles (such as going through puberty) to natural disasters, to the death of a loved one.

Crisis counseling is an intervention that can help individuals deal with the crisis by receiving assistance and support from a crisis counselor (also sometimes called a crisis intervention counselor or trauma counselor). The roots of modern-day crisis counseling date back to World War I and World War II.

Before this time, soldiers who exhibited significant psychological reactions to the experiences they had at war were frequently seen as weak or even disloyal. However, it soon became apparent that soldiers who were immediately offered treatment fared much better than those who weren't treated.

Meeting With a Crisis Counselor

Crisis counseling is intended to be brief, generally lasting for a few weeks. It is important to note that crisis counseling is not psychotherapy, but crisis intervention techniques do draw from psychotherapy practices.

Crisis intervention is focused on minimizing the stress of the event, providing emotional support and improving the individual’s coping strategies in the here and now.

Like psychotherapy, crisis counseling involves assessment, planning, and treatment, but the scope is generally much more specific. While psychotherapy focuses on a broad range of information and client history, crisis assessment and treatment focuses on the client’s immediate situation including factors such as safety and immediate needs.

A Crisis Counselor’s Job

The first part of crisis counseling involves assessing the client’s current situation. This involves listening to the client, asking questions and determining what the individual needs to cope effectively with the crisis.

The crisis counselor needs to define the problem while at the same time acting as a source of empathy, acceptance, and support. It is also essential to ensure client safety, both physically and psychologically.

Crisis counselors use psychotherapy to help people, families, and groups cope with traumatic experiences and emotional turmoil—especially people who are engaging in (or at risk of engaging in) self-harm or suicidal behaviors.

A professional crisis counselor is someone who has completed a bachelor's degree in psychology or a related field, a master's degree in counseling, and has passed numerous exams and requirements in order to be certified in crisis intervention.

However, there are also crisis counselors who work on a volunteer basis. Volunteer crisis counselors are not necessarily therapists, but they undergo training by the organization they work for to respond to people's calls or texts over a crisis hotline. They often refer callers to a mental health service in their area so a therapist or mental health professional can follow up and provide additional care.

Education

People who are experiencing a crisis need information about their current state and the steps they can take to minimize physical and psychological damage.

During crisis counseling, mental health workers often help the client understand that their reactions are normal, but temporary.

While the situation may seem both dire and endless to the person experiencing the crisis, the goal is to help the client see that they can eventually regain a sense of control over their life.

Offering Support

One of the most important elements of crisis counseling involves providing support, stabilization, and resources. Active listening is critical, as well as offering unconditional acceptance and reassurance.

Offering this kind of nonjudgmental support during a crisis can help reduce stress and improve coping. During the crisis, it can be very beneficial for individuals to develop a brief dependency on supportive people. Unlike unhealthy dependencies, these relationships help the individual become stronger and more independent.

Developing Coping Skills

In addition to providing support, crisis counselors also help clients develop coping skills to deal with the immediate crisis. This might involve helping the client explore different solutions to the problem, practicing stress reduction techniques, and encouraging positive thinking.

This process is not just about teaching these skills to the client; it is also about helping the client to make a commitment to continue utilizing these skills in the future.

When to Meet With a Crisis Counselor

You should seek the help of a crisis counselor whenever you are in the midst or aftermath of an event that triggers emotional turmoil and/or causes a significant disruption to your daily life.

Examples of crises include (but are not limited to) experiencing domestic violence, the loss of a loved one, a natural disaster or community-wide devastation, an unplanned pregnancy, a home invasion or robbery, any kind of assault, harassment, or bullying, or losing your job.

A personal crisis can also be triggered by a mental health condition like depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or substance use.

If you experience a traumatic event, there are also physical and mental warning signs that may indicate it's time to meet with a crisis counselor. Some of these signs include:

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

If you are in crisis, there are hotlines you can call to receive immediate help from a volunteer crisis counselor. The American Psychological Association provides a comprehensive list of crisis hotline numbers including:

Volunteer crisis counselors that operate these hotlines assist you confidentially. They are trained to listen to you, validate your feelings, and communicate with you "person to person" instead of treating you as a patient or victim.

They can address your immediate needs, such as offering you guidance on how to process what you're feeling and calm yourself down in the moment. They can also refer you to a mental health professional in your area who specializes in (or has experience with) the type of trauma you've experienced.

How to Become a Crisis Counselor

First, you must decide what type of crisis counselor you want to become. To become a volunteer crisis counselor, you may not require the extensive training that becoming a therapist requires. For instance, volunteers for the Crisis Text Line must comply with the following:

  • Make sure you meet the requirements: Services require volunteers to have a U.S. social security number. Volunteers must be at least 18 years old and have access to a computer and the internet.
  • Visit the crisis counseling website: Visit the volunteer page and fill out an application.
  • Complete training: Complete a 30-hour training during which you'll learn crisis intervention techniques.

However, there are other crisis lines that only accept licensed therapists or psychology students as volunteers.

If you are looking to become a full-time crisis counselor in a clinical setting (where you can see patients one on one or in a group setting), you'll need to complete the following steps:

  • Earn a bachelor's degree: Most often, clinical psychologists earn their degrees in psychology or a related field.
  • Earn master's and doctoral degrees: Clinical psychologists usually earn master's degrees in psychology as well. In order to practice psychology independently, you'll need a doctoral degree in most states.
  • Finish clinical requirements: You'll most likely be required to complete an internship in your field of study, giving you practical experience in your area of counseling. In addition, you'll have to pass numerous exams in order to ultimately earn your license.

Professional crisis counselors often continue their education so they can keep current on crisis intervention techniques for different types of trauma.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What does a crisis counselor do?

    A crisis counselor's job is to help people who experience trauma (such as domestic violence, a natural disaster, a death, or a significant life change). A crisis counselor teaches emotional coping skills, educates on mental health disorders, and provides other resources.

  • What are some effective techniques used in crisis intervention?

    Effective crisis intervention techniques include conducting an assessment (i.e., if there is suicidal risk or a need for medical attention), and developing a rapport with a person by speaking and asking questions non-judgmentally. Counselors also use active listening skills and encourage clients to express their own emotions and needs.

  • How do I become a crisis counselor?

    If you want to become a crisis counselor, you must complete at least a bachelor's degree and master's degree in psychology, plus a clinical internship. Some organizations let people volunteer as crisis counselors without this formal education, however, and provide training sessions for those who want to respond to texts and calls on crisis hotlines.

10 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Helping patients cope with a traumatic event.

  2. Mcfarlane AC. The impact of war on mental health: lest we forget. World Psychiatry. 2015;14(3):351-3. doi:10.1002/wps.20253

  3. Al-sulaiman RJ, Bener A, Doodson L, et al. Exploring the effectiveness of crisis counseling and psychoeducation in relation to improving mental well-being, quality of life and treatment compliance of breast cancer patients in Qatar. Int J Womens Health. 2018;10:285-298. doi:10.2147/IJWH.S161840

  4. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Crisis services: Effectiveness, cost- effectiveness, and funding strategies.

  5. American Psychological Association. Crisis intervention.

  6. Weger H, Castle Bell G, Minei E, Robinson M. The relative effectiveness of active listening in initial interactionsInternational Journal of Listening. 2014;28(1):13-31. doi:10.1080/10904018.2013.813234

  7. American Psychological Association. Crisis hotline numbers.

  8. Crisis Text Line. Become a crisis counselor.

  9. American Psychological Association. A career in clinical or counseling psychology.

  10. Weger H Jr, Castle Bell G, Minei EM, Robinson MC. The relative effectiveness of active listening in initial interactions. International Journal of Listening. 2014;28(1):13-31. doi:10.1080/10904018.2013.813234

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.