Crisis Response

Foundational Concepts of Crisis Response and Disaster Mental Health

Disaster Mental Health and Crisis Response are terms frequently used interchangeably. However, Disaster Mental Health is actually a subset of Crisis Response and has dynamics and characteristics unique to large scale community-wide natural and man-made disasters. The mental health intervention needs in the intensive aftermath of a disaster are complex and wide-ranging and must take into consideration the phase of recovery, the disaster setting, cultural differences, and special needs populations. Often mental health services are provided during the disaster event so responders are at greater risk of direct and secondary traumatization. See Phases of Disaster Chart and Description.  

Crisis Response
Crisis Management vs. Crisis Intervention

Crisis Response refers to all the advance planning and actions taken to address natural and man-made disasters, crises, critical incidents, and tragic events.

Crisis Management is the process by which an organization deals with a major event that threatens to harm the organization, its stakeholders, or the general public. Crisis Management targets the event. It is the planning and actions taken to deal with the actual incident.

Crisis Intervention is emergency psychological care aimed at assisting individuals in a crisis situation to restore equilibrium to their biopsychosocial functioning and to minimize the potential for psychological trauma. Crisis Intervention targets the stress reactions to the event. It is the planning and actions taken to deal with the emotional consequences of the incident. Intervention teams are frequently called Disaster Mental Health Teams, Crisis Response Teams or Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) Teams.

Crisis Management and Crisis Intervention operations affect each other’s mission. Effective Crisis Management minimizes stress reactions in the aftermath of the event and supports emotional recovery. It is crucial that Crisis Response plans require inclusion and integration of current best practices in the delivery of crisis intervention services by mental health professionals into existing emergency preparedness, response, recovery, and healthcare systems. Crisis Response Teams must fit into the Crisis Management structure and culture. Emergency Operations Centers should have a Crisis Intervention Liaison so Crisis Response Teams can be effectively deployed. Interventions, appropriately selected and applied, support Crisis Management operations.

California Disaster Mental Health Coalition (CDMHC)

The California Disaster Mental Health Coalition is a statewide, multidisciplinary organization that assists before, during, and after disasters through networking, coordination, consultation, and information sharing. Membership consists of mental health professional associations, governmental agencies, and other disaster-focused organizations.

CAMFT is the founding member and has been working since 2003 to improve disaster mental health services across disciplines. CAMFT members volunteer to represent CAMFT on the Coalition. The website is

Model of Care
Crisis Intervention vs. Treatment

Crisis intervention targets the response, not the event. Thus, crisis and disaster mental health interventions must be predicated upon assessment of need. A critical incident is a sudden, disturbing or unusually challenging event that generates a strong emotional and cognitive reaction (crisis) and has the potential to create significant human distress. It can be a state of intensified arousal accompanied by strong cognitive, physical, emotional, behavioral, and spiritual reactions as a result of the exposure to the critical incident. It can result in a psychological crisis; an acute response to a trauma, disaster, or other critical incident wherein psychological homeostasis (balance) is disrupted, one’s usual coping mechanisms have failed, and there is evidence of significant distress, impairment, and inability to function.

Crisis Intervention is a short-term, acute intervention designed to mitigate the stress reactions associated with a specific incident. It is not psychotherapy, but emotional first aid. See Crisis Intervention vs. Psychotherapy Treatment Chart.

The purpose of Crisis Intervention is to mitigate adverse reactions, facilitate coping and planning, assist in identifying and accessing available supports, normalize reactions to the crisis, and assess capacities and need for further support or referral to the next level of care. The goals of Crisis Intervention are: (1) to stabilize, (2) reduce symptoms, and (3) return to adaptive functioning or to facilitate access to continued care. When these three goals are reached, you’re done!

Crisis Intervention is not a substitute for psychotherapy. Rather, intervention strategies and tactics are elements within the Crisis Response system designed to precede and complement psychotherapy as part of the full continuum of care.

Disaster Mental Health Core Competencies

In 2020, the Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress and the National Center for Disaster Medicine and Public Health expanded and updated the curriculum guidance for Disaster Behavioral Health initially released in 2014. The 2020 guidance includes ten key DBH topics, literature searches relevant to each topic, and web-based resources. The full publication can be found at: Disaster Behavorial Health 2nd Edition (

A summary of the ten DBH topics identified in the curriculum recommendations, can also be found in Appendix G: Curriculum Recommendations - California Disaster Behavioral Health Plan (2020) pages 99-103.


California Disaster Behavioral Health Plan (2020)

The purpose of the California Disaster Behavioral Health (DBH) Plan is to provide an organizational framework for California's behavioral health response to disasters. This plan seeks to increase the understanding of DBH-what it is and how it can help individuals, families, and communities heal following disasters. Effective DMH response can help restore the psychological and social functioning of individuals, families, and communities through a continuum of services and activities- including communication/public information, education, basic psychological support such as Psychological First Aid (PFA), crisis intervention, as well as referrals for clinical services when needed - in order to promote the resiliency and mitigate the progression of adverse reactions into more serious physical and behavioral health conditions. the DMH plan addresses two major areas of need for both disaster survivors and responders:

  • Resilience-based psychoeducation and psychosocial interventions to reduce emotional distress and social problems
  • Referral and treatment for psychiatric and other behavioral health disorders, e.g., substance use disorders

The intended audience for the DBH plan includes California's behavioral health community, emergency management agencies, and related CA-Emergency Support Function (ESF) 8 disciplines, including public health and emergency medical services. The DBH plan also provides a "disaster plan template" that the 58 County departments of mental/behavioral health in California can adapt, modify and use for their own DBH planning efforts.

The DBH plan was developed with the assistance of a broad group of emergency management and disaster behavioral health subject matter experts. CAMFT representatives to the California Disaster Mental Health Coalition assisted with input and review of the plan.