How to Become a Crisis Intervention Counselor

  1. Complete a bachelor’s degree psychology, human services, or other health related field.
  2. Earn a master’s degree in counseling.
  3. Complete clinical experience requirements.
  4. Pass licensure and certification exams.
  5. Apply for specialized certifications.
  6. Continue education in crisis intervention.

Paths to become crisis intervention counselor typically follow a variation of these 6 steps but some steps may not be necessary depending on your circumstance. See a detailed explanation of each step below.

Crisis intervention counselors help those who have experienced trauma navigate what they’re feeling and use coping methods to stay safe and maintain positive mental health. According to the American Institute of Health Care Professionals, there are many causes of crisis, including national disasters, shootings and violence, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), rape, child abuse, sexual abuse, community crisis, substance abuse, unemployment, terminal illness and developmental crisis.

Stressful, jarring events like these can lead those who experience them to harm themselves or others, experience prolonged mental health issues or suicidal ideation. Crisis counselors help victims cope after events like these and refer them to services, if necessary.

Crisis counselors help people preserve their mental health. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, suicide is the second-leading cause of death among people ages 10-34. One in 25 American adults will experience serious mental illness in any given year, while 1 in 5 will experience mental illness.

People who have a passion for helping others and who want to improve the mental health of individuals and those in communities that are experiencing crisis can learn how to become a crisis counselor.

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Steps to Become a Crisis Counselor

1. Complete a bachelor’s degree in psychology, human services, or other health related field 

The first step to becoming a crisis counselor is to earn a bachelor’s degree. Students may save time going to school when they focus their bachelor’s degree studies in a counseling-related field, like psychology, social work or sociology. However, a bachelor’s degree in a field that’s not related to mental health can still lead to a career in counseling.

Some master’s in counseling degree programs accept students with a bachelor’s degree in an unrelated field, as long as the student completes certain prerequisite classes. No matter what type of education you have or what type of field you’re working in, there are paths to becoming a crisis counselor at any stage of life.

2. Earn a master’s degree in counseling

Although not required, a master’s degree is an alternative option to become a licensed crisis counselor for those who have not earned a bachelor’s degree in a psychology, human services, or other health related field. In a master’s in clinical mental health counseling program, students learn how to meet the mental, behavioral and emotional needs of various populations using crisis management techniques.

Master’s degree in counseling programs also teach students techniques in assessment, treatment planning, psychotherapy and therapeutic support.

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3. Complete clinical experience requirements

A master’s degree in counseling program will typically require real-life clinical experience, such as an internship and supervised practicum, which prepares students for licensure and certification after graduation. In conjunction with live discussions and class coursework, students complete a certain number of clinical counseling hours under the supervision of a licensed/certified counselor.

4. Pass licensure and certification exams

Crisis and trauma counseling certification requirements vary depending on the state the crisis counselor is working in and what the employer requires for the job. While some entry-level and administrative crisis counseling positions will not require licensure, most counseling fields do require licensure and/or certification for counselors to accept insurance payments.

To get licensed, a background check and references are usually required, along with a state-recognized counselor exam. The National Board for Certified Counselors provides the exams, which include the National Counselor Examination for Licensure and Certification (NCE) and the National Clinical Mental Health Counselor Examination (NCMHCE).

5. Apply for specialized certifications

The employer you want to work for may require additional crisis counselor certifications. Certifications demonstrate expanded knowledge and competency in crisis counseling, which can be helpful for job seekers and for those who want to advance their careers.

One crisis counseling specialized certification is the Crisis Intervention Counseling Certification, offered by the American Institute of Health Care Professionals Inc. The certification enables those who hold it to add the credential CIC-CSp after their name, which stands for Crisis Intervention Counselor-Certified Specialist.

6. Continue education in crisis intervention

Continuing education and re-certification may also be required. Numerous counseling associations require continuing education units to maintain status.

The CIC-CSp certification, for example, requires 50 or more hours of continuing education within the four-year period of certification.

What is Crisis Intervention?

Crisis intervention is an immediate response to mental, behavioral, emotional or physical trauma. A crisis counselor helps someone who is not able to cope with an extremely distressing situation on their own. The counselor intervenes quickly to keep the person safe and prevent further distress, self-harm, harm to others, long-term depression or suicide.

A crisis intervention counselor tries to lower the tension surrounding the event and decrease its immediate impact. The crisis counselor helps ease the distressed individual into a more normalized state of functioning by providing tools, resources and solutions the client can access right away to cope. Sometimes, the crisis counselor provides a referral to longer-term care for ongoing mental health treatment.

What is considered a mental health crisis?

According to the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services, a mental health crisis occurs due to a disruption or breakdown in typical functioning. While a mental health problem can be resolved by the individual without the need for outside help, a crisis can’t be fixed with the person’s typical problem-solving skills and resources.

Usually, a mental health crisis is caused by a powerful, out-of-the-ordinary event. Certified trauma specialist Jeffrey T. Mitchell, Ph.D., calls this a “critical incident (PDF, 162 KB).” Without crisis intervention, the effects of a critical incident can include PTSD, drug and/or alcohol abuse, panic attacks and acute stress disorder.

What Does a Crisis Counselor Do?

A crisis counselor helps people who are in distress. According to the American Counseling Association, a crisis counselor provides short-term support to help an individual regain a sense of control after a crisis event (PDF, 98 KB), helping someone one to three times. As crisis counselors help individuals, they provide resources for long-term care if needed.

The people a crisis counselor helps might have just experienced a dangerous event, like a terrorist attack or environmental disaster. They might think about hurting themselves or others due to emotional distress, perhaps from an event long ago—for example, a veteran or someone who has PTSD.

Crisis counselors are employed by a variety of organizations, including:

  • Nonprofits like the American Red Cross
  • 24/7 helplines, like suicide prevention hotlines
  • Police departments and hospitals
  • Airlines
  • Walk-in crisis services, like psychiatric urgent care
  • Government agencies

They might have offices where they see most of their clients. Or, they might work for mobile crisis teams deployed to offer on-site counseling, such as after a mass shooting or in a community that has experienced a natural disaster.

Crisis counselors need to be able to understand the typical events and trauma that occur due to various critical incidents and offer the appropriate resources to the people they work with.

Some crisis counselors work with specific populations, such as veterans or mothers and children. Others specialize in certain types of crisis, such as sudden death.

A crisis counselor can perform similar services as a grief counselor, but the key distinguishing factor is the time frame. A crisis counselor may refer individuals to ongoing services, like grief counseling. A grief counselor may work long-term with a client, helping them navigate the five stages of grief at their own pace.

Licensing and Certification Requirements

Typically, licensing and certification to become a crisis counselor requires a bachelor’s degree in a mental health field or master’s in counseling or a related field. Some state licensing programs require the program to be recognized by CACREP, the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs.

To earn a CACREP-accredited master’s degree in counseling, the student will have to complete a number of clinical supervision hours, practicing counseling in a clinical setting under the guidance of a certified/licensed counselor.

Licensure will typically require a background check, references and a passing score on a state-recognized counselor exam. State counseling licensure requirements will vary.

Career and Salary Outlook for Crisis Intervention Specialists

The career and salary outlook for crisis intervention specialists depends on a variety of factors, including the location of the job, the counselor’s education and certifications, and the organization employing the counselor.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) demand for mental health and substance abuse counselors is expected to increase by 22% between 2018 and 2028 — more than the average for all positions.

The BLS reports the 2019 median salary for these counseling professions was $46,240, which is in line with the median crisis counselor salary. The 10% with the highest pay earned more than $76,080. The median annual wage for those who worked in government was $52,720.

Different Careers in Counseling and Mental Health

Many mental health counselors work with clients who have experienced trauma or a difficult situation. The clients may not be in a crisis, but they require services to help them maintain positive mental health.

For those interested in other types of careers in counseling, specialties include:

The requirements to become a counselor in various specialties are similar. Typically, they include a master’s degree in counseling, completion of clinical fieldwork, licensure and/or certification, and continued learning to maintain licensure and/or certification.

FAQs

How long does it take to become a crisis counselor?

The time it takes to become a crisis counselor depends on state and employer requirements. Typically, a bachelor’s degree takes four years of full-time study. A master’s degree in counseling can be completed in two years of full-time study.

If a state requires licensure and/or certification, an aspiring crisis counselor will need to decide how much time to study to pass the exam.

Can I volunteer as a crisis counselor?

If you’re interested in becoming a crisis counselor volunteer, maybe for something to do while you’re in school or to add to your resume, there are options. For example, the Crisis Text Line is a free 24/7 text line for people in crisis. The Crisis Text Line is powered by volunteers, who work remotely and communicate with those who contact the line because they’re experiencing a crisis. Volunteers for this service must be at least 18 years old, submit two references, consent to a background check and undergo training.

To be licensed and become employed as a crisis counselor by various organizations like the government or a psychiatric center, schooling and exams are typically required.

What makes a good crisis counselor?

Crisis counselors work with people who are undergoing very tough times. Sometimes, crisis counselors are deployed to environments that have recently experienced dangerous situations.

Crisis counselors are typically patient, empathetic and passionate about helping others. Crisis counselors are also typically competent and confident to keep those they’re working with safe and to provide the help and assistance individuals need.

Crisis counselors are also knowledgeable about the crises they’re dealing with and the populations they’re assisting. They provide the appropriate resources and referrals to their clients to protect their mental health and safety. Crisis counselors also have to be excellent communicators to positively impact their clients.

Because crisis intervention counselors work in high-stress situations and/or with people who have experienced trauma, a crisis counselor typically creates healthy boundaries between their work and personal lives. This may also be true for all types of counseling.

Help Others by Becoming a Crisis Counselor

The work of a crisis intervention counselor can be rewarding. Crisis counselors provide valuable help to those in need, who are dealing with tough, sometimes terrifying, situations.

For those who are interested in providing life-changing services like crisis counseling, getting a master’s in counseling can be the start of a fulfilling career journey. Online master’s in counseling programs make it convenient to study on a flexible schedule, from anywhere in the world.

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Last updated: June 2020