How to Become a Crisis Counselor
People in crisis turn to centers and hotlines for help.
Volunteer at a Crisis Center
Most crisis intervention centers rely heavily on volunteers to answer phones, offer initial support and then refer people for help.
A good crisis center will offer sound and thorough training to volunteers before putting them on the phones or at the walk-in desk.
Crisis intervention counseling can be rewarding, but can also be draining and stressful.
Volunteers at crisis centers typically work half-day shifts (this can vary with the center) once a week, or more often if they have time. Centers can also schedule people for once-a-month help, so check with places near you to see what sort of volunteers they need.
You can answer phones, help do basic office work, staff a walk-in reception desk or perform other duties at the center. These facilities are usually non-profit and operate on a shoestring, so your help is appreciated more than you know.
It's important for volunteers to learn how to draw boundaries when needed, and how to respond appropriately, without trying to do the job of a professional counselor or therapist.
Here are some ways good centers train their volunteers to respond to those seeking help.
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Why do People Call Crisis Hotlines?
There are a myriad of reasons why people call crisis intervention centers, and one strategy volunteers need to learn is to adapt their responses to a variety of situations.
Among the more common reasons people call are:
- A desire to inflict self-harm (end it all).
- Domestic violence.
- Gender identify issues.
- Lack of financial resources (which can range from one-time issues for monthly bills to longterm financial distress).
- Homelessness or a risk of displacement in the near future.
- Unplanned pregnancy.
- Fear of having contracted a sexually transmitted disease.
- Questions about dating someone with HIV or other conditions.
- Need for food or emergency shelter.
- Depression or other emotional distress.
These are just a few of the reasons people can reach out for help. The specific requests for any given crisis center will depend on the demographics of the population being served and various economic and other issues in the community.
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What do YOU think?
Have you ever known someone who needed crisis intervention?
How to Talk to Someone Going Through a Crisis
Crisis counselors need to respond with compassion and understanding, and they need to be supportive but remain detached emotionally. This can be a tricky path to follow. Here are some basic strategies:
- Let the person know you listened and heard what is hurting them or bothering them. Repeat what they said back to them ("So, you're worried that your partner might be at risk of HIV?"). This verifies that you correctly heard what was said, and it validates to the caller or visitor that they're feeling distress because of a specific situation.
- Where appropriate, find out enough details so you can offer help or refer them to the right place. If the caller is discussing extremely private issues, there may be limits to what you should ask (but you should still let them know you've heard them and recognize they're in pain). In some cases, though, you will need to determine the level of help or type of services needed. Example, "Okay, as I understand it, you're completely out of food for this week? How many are in the household? Are there any infants or people with special diet needs?"
- Take notes. This will help you keep track of the needs the person has, as well as what you've already suggested to them.
- Remain calm. This is important not just for the calming effect it will have on the caller, but it will help you maintain emotional separation.
- Determine if anyone is in immediate danger. You are not the police, and you are not an emergency first-responder. Follow the guidelines of your crisis facility and contact emergency services if someone's safety or health is in danger.
- Connect the person with the right resource. As a trained volunteer, your facility should have a list of local government or non-profit resources to which you can refer people who need help. This can range from the phone number for food stamps (as well as a food pantry at your facility or elsewhere), 24-hour shelters, indigent healthcare providers and many other types of services.
- Make an appointment with a counselor at your facility, if appropriate. Some hotlines are telephone-only, but some have walk-in services and social workers who can provide interim counseling and support.
- Determine if they're thinking of hurting themselves (see information below) and follow the guidelines of your center, which can include calling EMS, arranging immediate volunteer transportation or other approaches to help someone in danger of self-harm.
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Signs That Someone Wants to Harm Themselves
Suicide prevention is one of the most emotional issues a volunteer crisis counselor can face. Naturally, professional counseling is ultimately the best resource for helping someone, but your crisis center will likely have provided you with some basic training on recognizing when someone needs help or a referral.
Here are some basic things to assess:
- Is the person threatening to end their life or otherwise seriously hurt themselves?
- Are they talking about intent?
- Have they identified a means to accomplish this?
- Is the means readily available to them?
- Have they told other people about it?
I was trained and served as a volunteer counselor at a crisis intervention center, and one of the most important things we learned was: If someone is completely intent on ending their own life, ultimately, nobody can make them change their mind or prevent it.
The reason this is important to know is in the awful event that someone you have talked with follows through on the threat to harm themselves in that manner, it's crucial to not blame yourself or have anguish or ask yourself how you could have stopped it.
However, it's a good sign when someone tells others of their plans or thoughts. People who tell others of their ideations are asking for help.
Your center will have specific protocols for dealing with this type of crisis, and will have strategies in place to offer appropriate help and support.
Volunteer crisis support is a rewarding way to donate your time to help others, and a way to feel you have given the help that is needed at the time it is needed. If can be tiring and frustrating, but also extremely gratifying to know you were there when someone needed it.