Tragic events on campus can leave students, faculty, staff and members of the college or university community traumatized. Providing 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 from a similar guide written for the faculty at Texas A&M University and is shared with permission by the Texas State University Counseling Center
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 campus on Thursday. I’m glad to be with all of you again. How are 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 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.
It is also important to let them know that when events like this occur, SMU’s Counseling & Testing makes special arrangements to provide support to students. If they would like help or support, they should contact Counseling & Testing as soon as possible. Also consider contacting Psychiatric Services and the Office of the Chaplain and University Ministries.
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 expression of 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.”
If you are able to identify students who are most upset, a referral to Counseling & Testing would be helpful. Try to speak to students in a calm, relaxed way, and don’t worry if you cry in front of them. That’s OK. 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 her or him privately. If you are concerned about your own reactions to the situation, consider seeking help at Counseling & Testing.
Some students who have had close involvement with the crisis may have vivid perceptions regarding the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of the event. It’s not uncommon for them to feel something is wrong with them because the memories of these sensory perceptions are so strong. You can reassure them that such feelings are not uncommon. 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 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 the harm to 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.”
A future orientation is helpful. You might ask:
“What are you worried about right now?”
When they speak about future concerns, you might be able to alleviate some of their worries with facts or other ideas. 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 is going to happen. But you can help yourself deal with this tragedy. Many people find that talking with others, spending time with family and connecting with ministers, rabbis or priests can hasten the healing process.”
After class, if students come to your office to speak in private, remember that 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. You might even tell them about other losses you’ve experienced if you’re comfortable with that. If you do talk about past 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 of healing.
These suggestions were adapted from: Poland, S., & McCormick, J. S. (1999), “Coping With a Crisis: A Resource for Schools, Parents, and Communities.” Longmont, Colorado: Sopris West.