10 Tips for Documenting in Crisis

In the wake of the Orlando shooting, I noticed questions popping up about how to obtain consent and document therapy when providing crisis services. My goal is support you in the awesome clinical work you provide so I've compiled a list of tips for how to proceed quickly so you can get in there and be a support for others.

Two common ways in which this occurs is that you'll either volunteer services through an agency or organization of some sort, or you'll offer to provide services in your office. Since these situations present different responsibilities on your end, I've separated the tips out. 

If you're providing services through a crisis center/agency/other organization:

  1. Ask. Make sure you check in with whomever is in charge to see what is expected of you. Is there a brief form you should have people fill out? Where should you write a note documenting whom you saw and where does that note go?
  2. Make suggestions. It's very common that systems and procedures are not set up in crisis situations. This is your opportunity to provide a nice suggestion. Offer to use your own note template or informed consent language. Offer to meet with other counselors and determine a protocol. Take a leadership position if necessary, because people are counting on you to be the professional.
  3. Document anyway. In some situations you may be encouraged to be more lax. While I agree this isn't the time to split hairs, crisis situations don't give you a free for all. You're still a professional with ethical guidelines so even if someone in charge wants to give you a pass, write up a note anyway.
  4. Be timely. No matter how chaotic things may be, do any required documentation immediately. It is too easy to get caught up in the whirlwind around you and then forget what happened with the 9th person you saw that day. Be responsible and take the time to get notes done. 
  5. Check in re: follow up. Make sure you have a clear sense of what will happen after you meet with someone. Is this a one-time debrief or an opportunity to connect with more ongoing counseling? If you feel someone needs additional services, where do you recommend they go? Set yourself, and the people you will meet, up for success rather than disappointment or abandonment. 

If you're providing services in your office:

  1. Reduce and reuse. Go through your intake and consent documents and identify what is the bare minimum information you need to review with someone before proceeding. Crisis likely isn't the time to go through your social media or texting policy, but you do still want to establish some boundaries and expectations.
  2. Explain yourself. When you choose to do the minimum necessary, it's important to explain why. Use your progress notes to explain why you chose to leave out certain things. This is your chance to provide your rationale.
  3. Be timely. Do these notes right away. When emotions are high it is very easy to forget specifics, even though you think there's no way you'd be able to forget such details. Even if you're behind on notes for other clients, do these crisis notes NOW.
  4. Be clear about follow up. Clearly identify with the client and clearly outline in your notes what the plan is for follow up. Is this a time-limited or session-limited series you're providing? Are you meeting with someone in the absence of their own therapist and planning to provide a connection at a later time? Or is this potentially a new client for you? Additionally, you'll want to be clear about who the client should contact (and how) should they feel the need outside of your session.
  5. Revisit when it's appropriate. If you end up seeing this client more long-term, it doesn't mean you get a "pass" for reviewing all that stuff you originally omitted in the beginning. After a few sessions, revisit those things (like your cancellation policy, etc.) that may not have seemed so crucial in the crisis moment. No need to ruin a good therapeutic relationship because you both weren't on the same page two months later.

Of course, crises are as wide and varied as the people involved in them, but these tips can help you have some order and direction in what is often a chaotic situation. 

What other tips do you have for documenting in a crisis situation? Share in the comments below and let us know what has worked well for you... or even what didn't work well and you'd never do again!