Help Disaster Survivors Cope as a Crisis Intervention Counselor

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Firefighter battling wildfire


Natural disasters are life-changing events. Losing family, friends, a pet or a home can cause severe trauma on its own. When compounded by displacement and confusion amid greater devastation, the potential damage done to mental health is even worse. Survivors of catastrophes not only have to recover from physical injuries, but also often psychological ones.

A 2005 review of literature found “studies conducted in the aftermath of disasters during the past 40 years have shown that there is a substantial burden of [post-traumatic stress disorder] among persons who experience a disaster.” Such negative mental health effects — including PTSD — are not limited to those directly affected. Rescue workers can also experience stress, depression, grief and loss.

Recent years have seen a number of deadly disasters. Wildfires have ravaged the West Coast of the U.S., while hurricanes brought ruin to Puerto Rico, the Gulf of Mexico and the eastern states. Other catastrophes have affected America and elsewhere: earthquakes in Mexico, mudslides in China, tsunamis in the South Pacific. These events reinforce how the pain of a disaster is not contained to the immediate aftermath, but lasts a lifetime. Earning a master’s degree in counseling can help prepare you to become a crisis intervention counselor and provide help to survivors and first responders.


House submerged in flooding.Recent events highlight need for crisis counselors

The valuable role of crisis counselors has been emphasized by tragic natural disasters that have befallen the U.S. Hurricane Maria tore through island nations in 2017, and is responsible for thousands of deaths and billions of dollars in damages in the American territory of Puerto Rico. The intensity of the storm, one of the worst on record for that area, and totality of destruction hampered recovery efforts, leaving some without power or basic services for months afterward. The languishing conditions, in part, can put a mental strain on survivors or escalate existing problems. Flooding from Hurricane Harvey displaced a number of communities in Houston and claimed many lives in 2017, while Hurricane Irma caused loss of life and major damage to Atlantic seaboard states in the same year.

In 2018, harrowing social media videos of Californians driving through wildfires demonstrated how traumatizing these experiences can be. The town of Paradise was almost completely burned by the Camp Fire, which spread rapidly and without warning. Those who made it out had no home to go back to, while first responders had to find the charred cars containing the remains of those who didn’t.


How crisis counselors can serve

Crisis counselors are often deployed along with other volunteers to disaster sites to assist in recovery. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) maintains a supplemental crisis counseling program to conduct community-based outreach and psycho-educational services. Counselors with FEMA provide informal support to survivors — casework is not recorded — and assists survivors in managing stress, using coping strategies and finding a path forward in life. Counselors also often work as part of other natural disaster relief organizations, like the American Red Cross.

Some of the key duties crisis counselors undertake, as laid out by the American Psychological Association (APA), include:

  • Advocating for the needs of affected individuals (clothing, health care, temporary housing, personal essentials)
  • Helping survivors acclimate to their current state and make sense of what’s happened and what is next
  • Providing grief and loss counseling to those who have been affected by death, either directly or indirectly
  • Listening to the concerns of communities and families, and recommending solutions
  • Working with children and other vulnerable populations
  • Giving survivors the tools, insight and context they need to process the disaster and move forward through recovery, long term
  • Coordinating relief efforts and solving logistics snags
  • Providing local resources can provide aid and long term support to trauma survivors

However, given the intensity of disaster situations and the specialized nature of crisis counseling, there are some standards that apply to the role. Specifically, counselors who want to travel abroad to help foreign populations (like those affected in Mexico, China or Indonesia) should have certain competencies and qualifications. The Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) Guidelines on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Emergency Settings hold that qualified crisis counselors:

  • Have previously worked in emergency settings
  • Have previously worked outside their own socio-cultural setting
  • Have basic competence in interventions covered in the guidelines
  • Have been invited to work in the region by an established natural disaster relief organization


How a master’s degree can help

Becoming a crisis counselor means first becoming well-versed in the theories and practice of counseling. Professionals can achieve this by earning a Master of Arts in Counseling, which grants them advanced skills and knowledge to competently serve individuals affected by a disaster. Those studying online at Bradley can expect to get an education in key disciplines and areas that relate to crisis counseling.

ENC 530 Loss and Grief Counseling allows students to examine loss and grief, as well as their underpinnings. Different types of loss are studied, and so are blockers and interventions, to gain a fuller understanding of how grief and loss are experienced across cultures and genders.

ENC 631 Crisis Intervention focuses directly on how to respond to crises through counseling. Students gain theoretical knowledge on methods suited for crisis intervention and have the chance to practice in the field.

Also, ENC 586 Counseling Diverse Populations prepares counselors with the multicultural expertise needed to serve disaster survivors around the globe.


Earn your online degree from Bradley University

There is some concern that factors like climate change will lead to natural disasters becoming more frequent and destructive. In these situations, crisis counselors are a resource that is highly depended on to provide overall aid to those in need. Becoming a crisis counselor means increasing one’s skill and expanding knowledge to effectively serve communities and families. Are you interested in learning more about how earning a master’s degree from Bradley University can prepare you? Contact an admissions officer today.


Recommended Reading

How Can Counselors Impact Communities Going Through Catastrophic Events?

Counseling Clients in First-responder Careers

Bradley University Counseling Programs



Oxford Academic

CBS News

ABC News

Federal Emergency Management Agency

American Psychological Association