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How critical incident stress management interventions help heal responders

Agencies need to take proactive steps to help responders heal and recover from traumatic-stress incidents


By Dr. Chuck Russo, Program Director, Criminal Justice at American Military University, and Carrie Kahn Courtney

First responders are trained to utilize tactical strategies in crisis situations, so they can quickly protect lives and property. However, high-crisis incidents can overwhelm normal coping mechanisms and trigger traumatic-stress disorders for first responders.

Officer-involved shootings, line-of-duty deaths and injuries, child victims, employee suicide and mass-casualty incidents are all events that can trigger traumatic-stress disorders for first responders. Common effects of traumatic stress include:

Besides taking a toll on the individual, traumatic stress has an impact on the agency. (Photo/AMU)
Besides taking a toll on the individual, traumatic stress has an impact on the agency. (Photo/AMU)
  • Concentration impairment
  • Eating and sleeping disturbances
  • Psychosomatic symptomology
  • Addictions
  • Depression
  • Irritability
  • Avoidant behaviors
  • Changes in libido
  • Increased personal and professional conflict

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is one of the many mental health disorders associated with traumatic stress. Such disorders often hinder a first responder’s ability to return to a pre-event “normal” status.

If post-traumatic stress is not addressed, it can often lead to faulty decision making, increased disciplinary problems, tardiness, on-the-job accidents, citizen complaints, and officer turnover.

While post-traumatic stress is the normal reaction to an abnormal event, PTSD does not have to occur. If post-traumatic stress is left unchecked, unaddressed, and untreated, the results can often lead to PTSD.

Help first responders with CISM interventions

Critical incident stress management (CISM) is a short-term, psychological first-aid intervention strategy that can help mitigate long-term mental health issues for first responders.

CISM interventions encourage individuals to emote the impact of the cognitive, emotional and psychological symptoms that manifest as a direct result of exposure to traumatic stress, especially repetitive traumatic stress. CISM aims to return those involved to a pre-event “normal” status quicker than if left to their own devices and deter PTSD.

Impacts of traumatic stress on an agency

Besides taking a toll on the individual, traumatic stress has an impact on the agency. The effects of traumatic stress on organizations often include:

  • Communication breakdowns
  • Decreased morale
  • Deteriorating group cohesiveness
  • Increased absenteeism
  • Increased healthcare costs including increased worker’s compensation and disability claims
  • Decreased ability to retain effective personnel
  • Decreased employee efficiency and productivity

These financial and morale costs can cause long-term damage to an agency’s community support, resource budget and recruiting opportunities.

It is important that agencies address the cognitive, emotional, physical and behavioral symptoms associated with traumatic stress by implementing CISM interventions. Such implementation often includes one-on-one sessions, debriefings and defusing sessions that are co-facilitated by mental health professionals and peers to combat traumatic stress. Agencies need to take proactive steps to help officers heal and recover from traumatic-stress incidents.

About the authors:
Dr. Chuck Russo is the Program Director of Criminal Justice at American Military University (AMU). He began his career in law enforcement in 1987 in central Florida and was involved in all areas of patrol, training, special operations and investigations before retiring from law enforcement in 2013. Dr. Russo continues to design and instruct courses, as well as act as a consultant for education, government, and industry throughout the United States and the Middle East. His recent research and presentations focus on emerging technology and law enforcement applications, in addition to post-traumatic stress and online learning.

Carrie Kahn Courtney, RCSWI, wears many hats as a grant writer, social worker, disaster behavioral health specialist for adults and children, addictions professional, cadre trainer for the Disaster Technical Assistance Center, Vice President of Volusia Interfaith Networking in Disaster, Outgoing Chair for the Mental Health Association of East Central Florida, and Advanced Responder for the Florida Crisis Consortium.

To contact the authors, please send an email to IPSauthor@apus.edu.

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