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The National Council of Psychotherapists

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Critical Stress - International Disaster
Michael Decaire


The results of the recent terrorism acts in the states have made me think of one of the least talked about areas of police psychology  -   that of the police or emergency services counsellor. I touched on this area once before, when I discussed some basics of critical incident stress debriefing. I decided that due to the current crisis it was a topic that warranted being touched upon again.


Critical incident stress debriefing is a multi-component process in which emergency workers that have faced an unusually traumatic event are debriefed in a manner that will hopefully decrease the incidence of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The debriefing process involves a number of stages including, the exploring of the sequence of events the individual experienced, that identification of areas that may be particularly stressful or guilt causing for the individual (and the subsequent decreasing of the severity of such areas/feelings), and an exploration with the individual of the signs and symptoms of acute stress. The process is not a psychotherapeutic one, tending to follow a group-session format that allows identification with others and elimination of personal blame and required self-reliance.


The applications of critical incident debriefing can be wide spread. The typical applications include debriefing of surviving workers when an employee is injured or killed, or the debriefing of emergency workers upon an exceptionally traumatic incident (massive car crash, etc.).


Critical incident team-members have applied their principles in a number of large-scale incidents. Debriefing occurred recently at the Oklahoma City disaster and the Canadian Swiss-Air crash. These incidents involved a number of traumatic experiences for emergency and recovery workers. Nothing to date however reaches the magnitude of the New York World Trade Centre building disaster.


The loss of life was astronomical. Even though emergency workers may become somewhat desensitised to death nothing could prepare them for such a large loss. More importantly though, from an emergency services debriefing aspect, is the extreme loss of life within the emergency workers. These individuals were colleagues, friends, and peers to each worker involved in the WTO clean up and recovery. Even for those who did not know anyone who lost their lives, the ability to relate to ones own peer-group causes an enormous amount of stress.


I can guarantee that a large number of stress debriefers were on the scene following the disaster, insuring that emergency personal were given the valuable opportunity to heal and decrease some levels of stress, emotional-reactivity, and even guilt. In fact with the clean up continuing to this day debriefers most likely are still available (for large scale events debriefing teams are brought in to provide a period of relief, for even the debriefers need a break from the stress).

Will all the trauma felt by emergency workers be relieved by debriefing? No. However, the incidence will surely be decreased dramatically. If you are a mental health professional working within the emergency services field, or a peer and college of emergency workers I strongly suggest you seek out some sort of CISD training. Training groups occur internationally, providing a valuable asset for both your career and most importantly the mental health of your co- workers or clients


Michael Decaire


Michael has also carried out a number of independent research projects in regards to his critically acclaimed forensic psychology website (URL above), which is by far the largest independent forensic psych project online. Michael also actively encourages anyone interested in the field to email him…


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