Steps to Becoming a Crisis Counselor

Steps to Becoming a Crisis Counselor
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Noodle Staff March 30, 2018

Are you empathetic? Do you have a strong nurturing presence during stressful and traumatic events? You should consider becoming a crisis counselor.

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Becoming a crisis counselor, or crisis intervention counselor, is a true human service. In this role, you can make a tremendous impact on the lives of your clients, because you are the one to make contact with an individual at a moment of urgent need and help people overcome trauma. When a person needs to get through the worst experiences of their lives and come out the other side, you are on the frontline. Crisis counselors receive training and gain knowledge that prepare them to offer help and support to some of the most vulnerable people in society.

A crisis counselor is a unique social service position, as it is meant to serve on a short-term basis. A crisis counselor is not someone an individual will see for years, but someone who is there at a time of a specific need, and assists people in crisis deal with immediate needs and find the tools to move forward. A crisis counselor may focus on individual crises, such as the loss of a loved one, a suicide attempt, or abuse. A crisis counselor may also focus on community crises, such as natural disasters, terrorist attacks, and mass shootings. In all of these situations, individuals are exposed to trauma and a qualified crisis counselor can be of invaluable assistance in dealing with the emotional and physical aftermath and beginning the path to healing.

What does a crisis counselor do?

People who are drawn to a career in crisis intervention are generally driven by a desire to help others. They tend to be empathetic, sensitive, and caring. You may be a victim of abuse or other trauma yourself, and wish to share what you’ve learned through your own experience (or via a crisis counselor you worked with yourself) with others in similar situations. You may have been moved by the experiences of others, or driven by social injustice to help the vulnerable individuals in your community find stability. Perhaps you’ve seen the work crisis counselors are doing in the news lately, as they are present and visible after traumatic events like school shootings. Whatever your motivation, becoming a crisis counselor can be incredibly rewarding. In this article, we’ll help you through the process of learning what it takes to become a crisis intervention counselor, from start to finish.



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Crisis counsleor role and responsibilities

A crisis intervention counselor job description usually includes face to face interactions with individuals in need of intervention. Usually people turn to crisis counselors when they’ve experienced trauma in some form and feel they’ve exhausted their own ability to cope with it; they may be experiencing low self-esteem, a lack of external support from friends and family, and a feeling of loss of power. These are people in a state of fear and hopelessness; a “crisis,” by definition, is a moment of intense difficulty, a pivotal moment in somebody’s life where difficult decisions must be made and incredibly damaging experiences overcome. Often, crisis counselors prevent suicides or other types of harm to self or others by traumatized and desperate individuals.

A crisis counselor’s first and most critical job is to ensure the safety of the individuals in their care. This means the first step is to conduct an assessment of the client, asking questions about the situation, listening, and ascertaining the person’s emotional and physical wellbeing. If the traumatized individual is a danger to himself or others, the counselor will need to intervene and ensure the individual gets the help he needs. If the individual is in danger from some outside source (an abusive spouse, for example), the counselor needs to ensure she has a safe place and that her basic needs are met. In the case of an abused wife, for instance, a crisis counselor may help secure the woman a bed in a women’s shelter where she will feel safe and protected from her abuser. In the case of a school shooting, crisis counselors may offer group counseling sessions to students and parents, distribute literature to help parents cope with their own fear and that of their children, and facilitate a sense of safety and unity among survivors.

When safety is ensured, the crisis counselor will then act as a source of support and knowledge; through training, crisis counselors are armed with tools and techniques for overcoming trauma, which they will share with their clients. Because crisis intervention is a short-term type of counseling, it’s important that the crisis counselor is able to successfully teach people to move past the point of crisis, to learn and exercise coping mechanisms and use resources at their disposal. A crisis counselor, in this way, is always aiming to work themselves out of a person’s life, to help people in crisis move through and past the moment of urgent need and into a place of progress and independence. Often at this point people will form relationships with longer-term counselors for ongoing support, but if they get to that point and take that initiative, the crisis counselor has done his job successfully.

Crisis counselor specializations and work environment

Crisis counselors may be employed by non-profit organizations, hospitals, police stations, or government agencies. They may specialize in certain areas, including:

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder in members of the armed forces (often through a VA hospital)
  • Abused women or children attempting to escape their abuser
  • Suicide prevention (may involve face-to-face crisis intervention counseling of at-risk individuals or work on a suicide hotline)
  • Natural disaster relief

Whatever the specialty, a crisis intervention counselor will always need a solid grasp of coping mechanisms and tools for dealing with trauma, and the ability to communicate those ideas to individuals in crisis.

What skills do I need to become a crisis counselor?

The most important qualities needed in a crisis intervention professional are empathy, patience, and compassion. A person in crisis is vulnerable and often fearful; they will find it difficult to respond to a person they don’t see as trustworthy and kind, and without trust, a counselor cannot make the connections needed to offer true support and guidance. Sometimes this means understanding what a person needs and being selfless in helping meet that need; for example, battered women and children are often more comfortable with female counselors than male, and a crisis counselor must be sensitive to that fear and willing to remove himself from a situation in which his presence may present more of a hindrance than a help. A male counselor in this situation might work in the background, preparing resources and making arrangements for safe living arrangements, for example, while allowing a female colleague to counsel the victims face-to-face.

Individuals in moments of crisis are by definition off-balance. They often experience depression, anxiety, hopelessness, guilt, irritability, fear, and a host of other negative emotions. A crisis counselor must have patience and compassion in these situations.

Crisis intervention counselors should also be organized, informed about social resources in their communities, and able to maintain detailed case notes about their clients. They should be excellent communicators, personable, and good at teaching the skills they’ve learned to others. And they should have the mental and emotional toughness to withstand long hours exposed to the trauma, pain, and fear of others. This is a career path at risk for burnout; counselors must take care of themselves as well as their clients to ensure this doesn’t happen.

Crisis counselor training & education

There are many paths to becoming a crisis counselor. Often counselors begin with bachelor’s degrees in fields like Social Work, Psychology, Sociology, Counseling, or some other related field. This can lay the groundwork for all types of counseling work, including crisis intervention. If you already have a degree in another field, though, you may still be suited for work in the crisis counseling industry. There are graduate programs, certificates, and continuing education programs that teach the needed skills and offer specific training for people of varied backgrounds.

It is likely you’re here because you are…

Thinking about or are still in college. You are making plans for your future and have not yet acquired professional or relevant experience. If the thought of becoming a crisis counselor speaks to your heart, you may want to see which degrees mentioned above are offered at your school (or prospective school) as a starting point.

Not yet working in the profession, but have some education. You obtained an associate’s degree in a related (or non-related) field but haven’t had the chance to jump into the social work field, which has recently sparked your interest. If this is the case, you may want to consider an internship in the field of counseling and completing your bachelor’s degree.

Not yet working in the profession, but have a bachelor’s degree. If you completed a degree in another field but are now interested in making a career switch, you may want to consider supplementing your education with a crisis counselor certification (discussed further below) to get you started. This may expand your network and allow you to find a position that is right for you.

Currently in the profession, but want to advance in your career. It is always a great idea to better yourself and make career advancements. As discussed below, there are options for supplementing your credential as a crisis counselor. You may also want to consider taking a management track continuing education course series. Another option would be to obtain a master’s degree in a related field, such as a master’s degree in social work.

Wherever you are in your career, you may find value in continuing your education in crisis counseling; a counselor can always learn something new that will help their clients, and a great counselor thrives on continued growth and knowledge building. In addition, the community and atmosphere of a classroom (in person or online) can offer a sense of community and support for crisis counselors feeling discouraged or in danger of burning out.

Crisis counselor licensing & certification

Most states do not require licenses or certificates for crisis counselors. However, a candidate with a certificate and extensive training will always be more attractive to those hiring counselors, and will probably be better equipped to help those in need.

There are a number of organizations that offer certification programs for individuals who wish to add fields like crisis counseling to their credentials. For example, the American Institute of Health Care Professionals is a widely respected organization that offers a continuing education program for Crisis Intervention Certification. Courses include Crisis Intervention Theory, Clinical Stress Management, Crisis & Trauma Counseling, and Relaxation Strategies, all tools in the crisis counselor toolkit. Once crisis counseling certification is earned through this program, recertification is required on an ongoing basis, ensuring the counselor’s skills remain sharp and in line with best practices.

Crisis counselor salary

The closest occupation to a crisis counselor found in the Bureau of Labor Statistics is a substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselor, which has a median pay of $42,000 per year in the U.S. However, both Indeed and Glassdoor list a specific average salary of $38,147 and $37,582, respectively. Additionally, we found salaries in the following relevant regions on PayScale as of March 2018:

  • San Francisco, CA: $39,960
  • Austin, TX: $40,277
  • Chicago, IL: $39,145
  • New Orleans, LA: $40,060
  • Miami, FL: $39,456
  • New York City, NY: $38,921
  • Boston, MA: $39,371

As always, earning advanced degrees such as a bachelor’s or master’s or enhancing your credential with additional certifications, such as a crisis and trauma counseling certification, may put you closer to the top of these scales.

Interested in exploring related social work careers?

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About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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