A shooting at a high school, healthcare workers facing a mass shooting, young people killed in a crowd surge at a concert—all are examples of trauma that punches the air out of us like a roller coaster plunging at 5 G’s.
Unfortunately for clients, but fortunately for therapists, we are familiar with crisis. When the stories disappear into a salad of YouTube videos, who helps the victims or rescuers process the shocking thoughts and the arduous hours that come next? Many companies call on Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) professionals who meet with groups hours or days after a mass shooting, bank robbery, natural disaster, or other traumatic event.
CISM groups are not psychotherapy. CISM groups seek to:
- Stabilize and normalize reactions
- Educate on how traumatic events might influence the body and mind
- Establish coping skills
- Identify resources such as an Employee Assistance Program (EAP)
For a city or a company hosting the CISM response, the goals can be simple—send a message that their employees are supported, show them resources that can help and help return them to high performance levels. Unlike group therapy, most of these groups are done onsite close to or at the scene of an event and are one-time groups. Also, unlike psychotherapy, a CISM group is not the place where you tell your story of the traumatic event.
An example would be last November when CISM responders were used after a crowd surge at a Houston concert. Ten people died, aged 9 to 27 years old. Some of the survivors were teenagers working in crowded stores during the holidays.
“Teenagers working in this climate might have physical responses like racing heart, sweating, or shaking,” says HGPS member and group psychotherapist Melanie Flint (pictured right). “They may feel intense fear or panic and the urgent need to flee, run or escape.” That’s exactly what one CISM responder discovered when called to a clothing store. Several teens were finding it impossible to cope. The retailer showed a great deal of caring, sensitivity and urgency by bringing in trained help to run a group.
Another example was a mass shooting in Baytown, Texas last December. One person was killed, and 13 others were wounded in a drive-by. Victims poured into a local hospital. “These medical providers, in order to do their jobs, might default to disconnection from the event in order to care for their patients,” says Flint. CISM responders discovered that the team performed brilliantly. But once the event ended, some medical providers faced sleep and eating disruptions. This is where CISM group can help stabilize staff that must continue to provide optimal patient care.
The types of groups can be as varied as traumatic events or a person’s perception of an event. But the combination of CISM, followed by group psychotherapy, can be one of the most powerful groupings in a clinician’s effort to reduce the influence of post-traumatic stress and help a survivor search for healing.