What is a Crisis Services Coordinator?

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), nearly 10 million adults in the U.S. are living with a serious mental illness. Issues like anxiety, schizophrenia, and depression are on the rise, along with suicide rates (U.S. suicide rates are at the highest level since WWII, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.) and drug and alcohol addiction.

While mental health services are in demand, the provision of these services to those in a mental health crisis can be a complex and multifaceted process – one that’s nerve wracking and frustrating, at best, for mental health patients and the people who love them to navigate.

Understanding the continuum of care, the types and availability of care, the steps for receiving the proper care, and the affordability of that care is not for the faint of heart. In times of crisis, time is of the essence, and locating/securing appropriate, available, and affordable mental health services is not something that can wait.

Crisis service coordinators are often the heroes when it comes to handling the “what now” issues with mental health crises. These skilled professionals are experts in the behavioral health system, and their background in the human services makes them adept at everything from providing an initial assessment to securing residential crisis care.

To fully understand the need for crisis service coordinators in our nation’s healthcare system, it’s important to first identify the challenges and roadblocks that currently exist.

Access to Mental Health Services Continues to Be Limited

In 1963, mental healthcare in the U.S.—how it was viewed and how it was delivered—did an about-face. It was then that President John F. Kennedy signed into law the Community Mental Health Act, which grew out of new approaches to psychotherapy and changing views on how mental illness should be treated.

The passage of this law made sweeping changes to the delivery of mental healthcare – more specifically, moving many patients from long-term mental health institutions back into the community. Thus, this massive change led to the establishment of many community-based mental health centers and the development of better psychotropic medications.

Today, community-based behavioral healthcare is delivered by a mixture of nonprofit organizations, private companies, and county-operated programs. It’s a hodgepodge of services and programs that can be difficult to unravel and understand and, for many, difficult to access in a timely fashion.

According to a National Council for Behavioral Health report, America’s Mental Health 2018, mental health services continue to fall short when it comes to meeting the demand for care. More specifically, the main problem is the lack of access to care or the ability of people to find care. Other issues include insufficient healthcare coverage, limited mental healthcare options, and long waits. According to the report, 96 million Americans reported being forced to wait a week or longer to receive mental health treatment.

This also begs the question: Where do people go when they are in the midst of a mental health crisis? The answer, more often than not, are hospitals. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, “With nowhere else to turn, mental health patients are flooding emergency departments.” In fact, recent statistics reveal that about one in every eight emergency room visits are due to a mental health disorder and/or substance abuse issue. Hospitals have become the first stop for mental health emergencies, which has led to the creation of emergency psychiatry within many emergency departments.

Whether patients in the midst of a mental health crisis seeks out treatment in a community-based setting or in a hospital, a question of the availability and accessibility of subsequent services and programs remains. In other words, once the crisis is stabilized, either in a hospital or community-based setting, care must continue through a number of rehabilitative and recovery-focused support services and programs—hence the importance of the continuum of care.

Crisis Service Coordinators: Providing Support in Navigating Mental Health Services

The work of crisis service coordinators was born out of a complex behavioral healthcare system that demands professionals who are both experts in mental healthcare and the system that delivers it.

They may coordinate care across the continuum of need, which includes:

  • Pre-Crisis Planning
  • Early Intervention
  • Crisis Stabilization
  • Post-Crisis Support

This may mean being the first point of contact for patients or patient families who fear an impending mental health crisis; working to provide services that stabilize a patient in the midst of a mental health crisis; or coordinating follow-up care following a mental health crisis.

In some cases, crisis services coordinators swoop in and take over once patients have sought care in a hospital emergency room, urgent care center, or community-based mental health center. In other cases, they serve as the first point of contact during a mental health crisis or when a crisis is imminent. When used as a first point of contact, they can often prevent emergency room visits and psychiatric hospitalizations by locating proper emergency care for patients. Crisis services coordinators share the philosophy of community-based care, with the goal of providing crisis mental health services to patients in the least restrictive setting.

When used a first point of contact, crisis service coordinators provide timely, integrated mental health services by coordinating, planning, and implementing core crisis care, which may take place in 23-hour crisis stabilization/observation units, short-term crisis residential services (supervised apartments, foster, homes, etc.), mobile crisis services, and urgent care centers (offering immediate clinical intervention, triage, and stabilization).

They may also work alongside law enforcement officials if patients are in immediate danger to themselves or others…legal/court services if involuntary hospital admission is necessary…and social services if issues such as housing, medical benefits, and child welfare must be addressed.

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Crisis service coordinators may work out of:

  • Mobile crisis services units
  • Telephone hotlines
  • Schools
  • Prisons/jails
  • Walk-in urgent care centers
  • The courts
  • Crisis intervention teams (police-based units)
  • Hospital-based psychiatric emergency services
  • Private/nonprofit/community-based care coordination service providers

Regardless of their professional setting, crisis services coordinators have a number of goals/objectives:

  • To provide timely emergency services
  • To stabilize the patients as quickly as possible
  • To coordinate care with patient’s primary mental healthcare provider
  • To maintain strong relationships with other community-based providers
  • To provide pre-screening assessments that include addressing the needs of patients with co-occurring mental illnesses or substance abuse disorders
  • To arrange transportation
  • To facilitate prompt access to services
  • To streamline and coordinate assessment, triage, and referral
  • To ensure patients receive care that is appropriate to their needs

How to Become a Crisis Services Coordinator: Degree, Certification and License Requirements

In most cases, crisis services coordinators are human services practitioners (usually social workers or mental health counselors) with graduate degrees, state licenses, and years of experience working in the mental health services field.

Their in-depth knowledge of the system and the services and programs offered within the system allow them to provide the seamless and timely coordination of care at all levels and maintain positive relationships with other community-based mental health providers.

Just some of the degrees often held by crisis services coordinators include:

  • Master of Social Work (MSW)
  • MA/MS in Clinical Counseling
  • MS in Clinical Rehabilitation and Mental Health Counseling
  • MA in Counseling or Mental Health and Wellness

Degree and License Requirements for Social Workers

While social workers may be licensed at the bachelor’s or master’s degree in most states, chances are you’ll need to be state licensed as an advanced generalist or clinical social worker, both of which require completing an MSW, at least two years of post-graduate experience, and a national examination through the Association of Social Work Boards.

You can find more information on state licensing requirements for social workers here.

Degree and License Requirements for Mental Health Counselors

To become a mental health counselor, you’ll need to earn a master’s degree in a counseling-related field, complete at least two years of post-master’s clinical work under the supervision of a licensed clinical mental health counselor, and pass the National Counselor Examination through the National Board for Certified Counselors.

You can find more information on state licensing requirements for mental health counselors here.

National Certification Options

Both mental health counselors and social workers can further their education and enhance their resume and career by earning national certification.

For example, the National Association of Social Workers offers the Academy of Certified Social Workers (ACSW) and Diplomate in Clinical Social Work (DCSW).

The National Board for Certified Counselors offers the Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselors (CCMHC), Masters Addiction Counselor (MAC), and National Certified School Counselor (NCSC)

Crisis Services Coordinator Salaries

May 2021 statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) provide salary averages for practitioners in the human services field at the 25th, 50th, 75th and 90th percentiles:

  • Healthcare social workers: $47,630, $60,840, $76,920, $86,820
  • Social workers, all others: $46,340, $61,190, $80,040, $93,540
  • Substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors: $38,520, $48,520, $61,660, $77,980
  • Counselors, all others: $37,060, $45,160, $58,090, $76,780
  • Therapists, all others: $46,980, $59,500, $77,830, $98,490
  • Medical and Health Services Managers: $77,750, $101,340, $135,750, $205,620
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2021 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary and employment figures for Healthcare Social Workers; Social Workers, All Other; Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors; Counselors, All Other; Therapists, All Other; and Medical and Health Services Managers reflect national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed January 2023.