In mental health terms, a crisis refers not to a traumatic event or experience, but to how an individual responds 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 can help individuals deal with the crisis by offering assistance and support.
The roots of modern day crisis counseling date back to World War I and World War II. Prior to this time, soldiers who exhibited significant psychological reactions to the experiences they had at war were frequently seen as weak or even disloyal. 1 However, it soon became apparent that soldier who were immediately offered treatment fared much better than their untreated counterparts.
Elements of Crisis Counseling
Crisis counseling is intended to be quite brief, generally lasting for a period of no longer than a few weeks. It is important to note that crisis counseling is not psychotherapy. 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.2
Like psychotherapy, crisis counseling involves assessment, planning and treatment, but the scope of is generally much more specific. While psychotherapy focuses on a wide range of information and history, crisis assessment and treatment focuses on the client’s immediate situation including factors such as safety and immediate needs.3
While there are a number of different treatment models, there are a number of common elements consistent among the various theories of crisis counseling.
- Assessing the Situation
The first element 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 effectively cope with the crisis. During this time, the crisis counseling provider 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.
People who are experiencing a crisis need information about their current condition and the steps they can take to minimize the 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 he or she will eventually return to normal functioning.
- Offering Support
One of the most important elements of crisis counseling involves offering 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 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 encouraging the client to make a commitment to continue utilizing these skills in the future.
1 Hill, J.R. (1985). Predicting suicide. Psychiatric Services, 46, 223-225.
2 Parad, H.J. & Parad, L.G. (1999). Crisis Intervention: Book 2. Ontario, Canada: Manticore Publishers.
3 Wiger, D.E. & Harowski, K.J. (2003). Essentials of Crisis Counseling and Intervention. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.