On Campus Crisis & Trauma

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When tragic events occur on campus, members of the college community can experience stress, trauma, grief, or a combination of these reactions. CAPS has a role in creating a safe environment for university members to have an opportunity to express their thoughts, feelings, and reactions to a crisis or trauma, and can offer additional support and help to those individuals when reactions are extreme or persistent, and are causing an individual ongoing trauma or difficulty.

Surviving a Crisis

After the Crisis

Surviving a Trauma

The Nature of Trauma
Reactions to Trauma
How We May Be Affected
What Helps Healing
How to Help a Friend

After the Crisis

Unfortunately, tragic events 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 from a similar guide written for the faculty at Texas A&M University following the Bonfire tragedy in November 1999. This guide was kindly shared by Professor Stan Carpenter from the Educational Administration Department at Texas A&M.

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/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.

It is also important to let them know that when events like this occur; our Counseling Center makes special arrangements to provide support to students who are affected by the situation. If they would like help or support, they should contact that Center as soon as possible.

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 the Counseling Center would be helpful. 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. 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/him privately. If you are concerned about your own reactions to the situation, consider seeking help. Give us a call and we can chat with you about whether you should think about seeking help.

Some students who have had close involvement with the crisis may have very 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 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 of the 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.”

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 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 is going to happen. But you help yourself to deal with this tragedy. Many people find that talking with others, spending time with family, connecting with ministers, rabbis, or priests 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 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 resources for schools, parents, and communities. Longmont, CO: Sopris West.

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The Nature of Trauma

The severity of a person's reactions to trauma is often associated with the nature of the incident.  The following are examples of factors that strongly impact survivors:

  • The unpredictable timing of the incident

  • Experiencing physical injury, either through accident or violence

  • Having one's physical health or life threatened

  • Having a near death experience

  • Having a loved one's physical health or life threatened

  • Feeling loss of control

  • Witnessing the injury or death of others

  • Surviving an experience where others have been injured or died

  • Loss of home and security due to disaster

  • Seeing or having contact with blood

  • Prolonged exposure to danger

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Reactions to Trauma

Persons react to trauma in ways that reflect their prior experiences with crisis, their distinctive personalities and problem-solving skills.  There are, however, some generally shared experiences that often accompany trauma.  Typical reactions may include some of the following:

  • Confusion and a sense of detachment

  • A numbness of "cloudy" perspective

  • Heightened startle response

  • Fear of situations that serve as a reminder of the event

  • Physical and emotional reactions to sights, sounds, smell and feelings associated with the trauma

  • Difficulties with getting to sleep, disturbing dreams or nightmares

  • Intrusive and repetitive thoughts and images

  • Difficulty with concentration and memory

  • Intense emotional reactions, e.g., anger, crying, guilt, fear

  • Loss of appetite

  • Decreased emotional and physical energy

  • Susceptibility to ailments (e.g., colds, joint soreness, sore muscles)

  • Fear of trusting others

  • Anxiousness about the future

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How We May Be Affected

Persons respond to tragedy in various ways. Normally we attempt to find ways to avoid the intrusion of painful memories or preoccupation with emotional and/or physical pain. Examples of how trauma may affect people include:

  • Increased sense of vulnerability

  • Avoidance of responsibility

  • Withdrawal from the support of family, friends and community

  • Altering one's lifestyle such as increased risk taking

  • Increased use of substances/drugs to socialize or reduce pain

  • Experiencing flashbacks or altered states associated with the trauma

  • Avoidance of situations that serve as a reminder of any aspect of the trauma

  • Lack of confidence in returning to daily life activities, particularly those that may have been related to the trauma

  • Reactions associated with the guilt of surviving when others did not

  • Assuming undue responsibility for the outcomes of the incident

  • Changing expectations of one's self and others

  • Altering commitments in work or study activities

  • Heightened agitation towards perceived offenders and concern for victims

  • Disruption in one's worldview about fairness and justice

  • Uncertainty about how to relate to others

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What Helps Healing

There are ways to help the healing process. While there is not a cure for human suffering, over time healing can occur when attention is given to the needs of the whole person.

  • Understand that trauma impacts a wide range human experience, our physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual well being. No part of the human experience is immune from the stress associated with trauma.

  • Promote self-assurance by reminding yourself that you survived a painful experience and that it takes time to heal. Avoid comparing yourself to how others are handling their experience.

  • Seek out persons who care for and support you. Share your reactions, thoughts and how the experience impacted you.

  • Know that the reactions to trauma described are normal responses to a very abnormal experience. They occur in varying degrees of severity and type for each person.

  • Consider writing a journal of your experience. Help those who care about you become aware of how you might react in certain situations.

  • Seek to gain perspective on the experience. This is often helped by participation in counseling. Other aids may include meditation, reading, spiritual reflection or involvement in support groups.

  • Trauma places stress on the human body and may result in illnesses that decrease energy and ability to concentrate. If needed, seek medical assistance.

  • Promote your sense of hardiness through healthy nutrition and exercise.

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How to Help a Friend 

  • Be patient and understand there is not a formula for healing from the wounds of trauma

  • Respect the other person's perspective. Persons may have different understandings of what occurred and how harmful it was. Avoid assigning blame.

  • Support the person's need for understanding. You do not have to possess the answers to the difficult questions the trauma raises.

  • Provide support at the level the survivor desires. Inquire about how to be helpful while respecting the other person's limits.

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