Warning issued for trauma debriefing

Efforts to get firefighters, disaster survivors, and others to talk about traumatic events immediately after such experiences, with an emphasis on venting emotions, have mushroomed in the past few years. That growth has unfolded despite the absence of evidence that such psychological debriefing actually aids recovery from highly upsetting events, according to a review in the November Psychological Science in the Public Interest.

Most published studies show that people who are debriefed individually or in groups just after a trauma fare no better than do those who aren’t debriefed, say psychologist Richard J. McNally of Harvard University and his colleagues. No evidence exists that debriefing reduces the incidence of posttraumatic stress disorder, and some investigations suggest that debriefing distorts the natural course of psychological healing after a severe trauma, the scientists remark.

“For scientific and ethical reasons, professionals should cease compulsory debriefing of trauma-exposed people,” the researchers conclude. They don’t preclude the technique for those who request it, however.

For those who don’t, the scientists say, cognitive-behavioral treatment delivered weeks or months after a traumatic event shows promise as a way to improve psychological adjustment. This technique focuses on reliving the trauma through imagination, addressing distorted beliefs about the trauma, and learning ways to relax.


If you have a comment on this article that you would like considered for publication in Science News, send it to editors@sciencenews.org. Please include your name and location.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.