The conventional protocol for emergency response personnel is to debrief them 24 to 48 hours after a traumatic incident, the severity of which can range from a local accident to a national event such as 9/11. Research has suggested that such debriefings, which include peer support and a chance to discuss thoughts, emotions and physical reactions with a mental health professional while learning coping techniques, may help prevent post-traumatic stress disorder among these workers.

But a growing number of experts believe that immediate debriefing may not prevent long-term psychological distress--and could even be harmful.

"Research is mixed regarding the effectiveness of debriefing, but the general consensus now is that debriefing immediately after an event is not a preferred practice," says Denise Bulling, PhD, who studies debriefing as senior research director at the University of Nebraska Public Policy Center.

To clarify the role that timing plays in debriefing, Robin Chang, a clinical psychology graduate student at the University of Nebraska--Lincoln, is exploring the effectiveness of delayed debriefing by one to two weeks, thanks to a $10,000 Raymond A. and Rosalee G. Weiss Innovative Research and Program Grant from the American Psychological Foundation. The Weisses established the fund in 2003 to promote innovative research in violence prevention and intervention or research related to psychology and health.

Chang is the first graduate student to receive the award. Working with the University of Nebraska Public Policy Center and Nebraska Health and Human Services, Chang is comparing how emergency responders cope when given immediate debriefings and when debriefings are conducted one to two weeks after a traumatic event.

"Trauma's often seen as a medical ailment where immediate treatment is best," says Chang. "But with mental health, that may not be the best tactic. Right after a traumatic event, people are anxious, they may not want to talk and immediate debriefing can increase their stress."

During the one-year study, he'll invite all of Nebraska's emergency first responders--including corrections officials, emergency medical services personnel and fire and hospital workers--to complete a series of questionnaires including such self-report measures as symptoms of depression and anxiety, alcohol use, social support and work-related stress before and after a debriefing.

The Nebraska Statewide Critical Incident Stress Management Program is poised to change its debriefing protocol--which is mandated by the state--if Chang's research reveals a benefit to delayed debriefing, he says.

"This is really exciting because it's not just research in a laboratory setting--it's real responders affected by real events," says Bulling. "Robin's studies directly impact policy and will make a difference in how the state of Nebraska supports responders."

Further Reading

For more information on the Raymond A. and Rosalee G. Weiss Innovative Research and Programs Grant, visit the APA APF Funding/Grants Web site.