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Following a Crisis - A Guide for Faculty and Staff Members

Unfortunately, tragic events sometimes occur on college campuses. These events often leave many students, faculty, staff, and members of the college or university community severely traumatized. When this happens, providing some time in a class setting for emotional debriefing can significantly aid and accelerate the healing process.

The following guide to emotional debriefing in class was adapted by the Texas State University Counseling Center from a similar guide written for the faculty at Texas A&M University following the bonfire tragedy in November 1999.
 
  • Provide time during class to discuss the incident and the students’ feelings about it. The students should be encouraged to express feelings in a supportive atmosphere as soon as possible. The professor might say, “I’m still (sad, shaken, upset) by the tragedy that happened on Monday. I’m glad to be with all of you again. How is each of you (feeling, doing, coping) with this?”

  • Give the students 30 seconds to a minute to say something. They may need a little time to get the courage to speak. If students do not speak, remind them of your office hours, your e-mail address, and/or your willingness to meet one-on-one. Emphasize that talking about the trauma is a good and healing thing to do. If you share some of your feelings, it will encourage them to talk. The minor loss of instructional time will be insignificant because if they are having serious emotional reactions, their learning will be compromised.

  • Remember that everyone’s story is valid. Not everyone has to speak.

  • Emotional debriefing is not about establishing facts of the incident—it is about allowing students to express their feelings. Whatever students say can be answered with: “It must be terrible to think about that.” Or “It must hurt a lot to remember it that way.”

  • Some students who have had close involvement with the crises may have very vivid perceptions of the event. It’s not uncommon for them to feel something is wrong with them because their memories and perceptions are so strong. You can reassure them that such feelings are not uncommon after a tragedy. You might ask: “Others have reported similar perceptions and thoughts after such a tragedy.” Or, “It must have been so upsetting to (see, hear, feel, smell, taste) that.”

  • Some students feel very guilty. They may have been close enough to the situation or victims that they believe there is something they should have done to prevent the tragedy or harm to some victims. They may believe that they should have been there to help some of the victims. To address this, you might say: “After a tragedy, people often second-guess themselves, and they are not sure they did everything they could. That’s a natural feeling of wanting to help others. It does not reflect what was really possible.”

  • You might ask: “What are you worried about right now?” When students speak about future concerns, you might be able to alleviate some of their worries with facts or other ideas and thoughts. Giving students a chance to share their worries reduces anxiety. You can say, “It’s really too early to know all the facts about what happened, or what is going to happen now. But you help yourself to deal with this tragedy. Many people find that talking with others, spending time with family, connecting with clergy can hasten the healing process.”

  • After class, if students come to your office to speak in private, remember they are looking for someone who will validate their grief, not talk them out of it. Sitting quietly with them and letting them talk may be all that is needed. Share your own feelings about the tragedy. You might even tell them about other losses you’ve experienced if you’re comfortable with that. If you do talk about pass losses, it is helpful to end by saying that for you there was a gradual improvement in hopefulness and mood as time passed. You can simply say that you hope they have the same experience in healing.

  • When speaking to students, try to do so in a calm relaxed way and don’t worry if you cry in front of them. That’s okay.

  • It is also important to let students know that when events like this happen, our Counseling Center makes special arrangements to provide support to students who are affected by the situation. If you are able to identify students who seem most upset, a referral to the Counseling Center would be appropriate. If they would like help or support, they should contact the Counseling Center as soon as possible.

  • The Counseling Center is located on the first floor of Berg Hall, next to the Student Health Center. The Counseling Center is open Monday through Friday, 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Walk-ins are encouraged during times of crisis, although appointments may also be made by calling (703) 526-6861. During times when the Counseling Center is closed, counselors can be reached by contacting the Student Health Center, Residence Life staff, or Campus Safety.

  • When the students finish talking, you can offer them a moment of silence. Suggest that they close their eyes and breathe slowly and deeply three or four times. If you are worried about a particular student, approach him or her privately.

  • If you are concerned about your own reactions to the situation, consider seeking help. The Counseling Center is available for one-time consultations with faculty and staff members who may need assistance with locating and accessing resources in the community. Give the Center a call to talk about whether you should think about seeking help.
 
These suggestions were adapted from: Poland, S., & McCormick, J.S. (1999), Coping with a crisis: A resource for schools, parents, and communities. Longmont, CO: Sopris West.