Thoughts on Critical Incidents and Trauma in the School Context

Critical Incidents and Trauma

If you work at a school, you need to prepare yourself for all eventualities and potential circumstances. This includes being prepared for trauma and critical incidents. While we all hope that a disaster or serious accident never happens at the school we work for or attend with our children, being prepared and knowing what to do can make a monumental difference in these moments. With that being said, below, we are going to reveal everything you need to know about critical incidents and trauma.


What are critical incidents?

Critical incidents relate to unexpected and extraordinary circumstances that can result in a traumatic reaction. There are a lot of different types of critical incidents that can occur. Examples include the following:

  • Being a witness to an event that has resulted in someone experiencing harm.
  • Assaults; this includes psychological, sexual, or physical assaults.
  • Vehicle accidents.
  • Death (actual or threatened).
  • Wars.
  • Disasters. 


What is trauma?

Trauma is a term that is used to describe the physiological, psychological, and emotional residue that is left over due to heightened stress that has occurred because of a challenging event. In regards to critical incidents, trauma relates to how we feel afterwards from a mental health standpoint. There are three different types of trauma, which we will explain below:

  • Simple trauma – Simple trauma is painful and overwhelming. This relates to experiences of events that have the potential to result in serious injury and/or can be life-threatening. They tend to be single incidents. The victim does not experience societal blaming and there tends to be less stigma associated with this type of trauma. There tend to be helpful and supportive community responses. Simple trauma involves the experiences of being in cyclones, earthquakes, bushfires, house fires, and car accidents.
  • Complex trauma – Complex trauma tends to involve violation, violence, and interpersonal threat. It tends to include a number of incidents. There is a sense of shame experienced by the victim and almost always a stigma associated with such incidents. Community responses do not tend to be helpful. The targets of violence tend to be disempowered and blamed. They can feel like they do not have support from others, leading to isolation and often a sense of betrayal. Examples of this type of trauma include experiences with imprisonment, war, rape, domestic violence, bullying, and child abuse.
  • Developmental trauma – Finally, we have developmental trauma. Young people and children are very vulnerable to the impact of trauma because of the immaturity of their brain’s development. Because a child’s brain is so malleable, trauma can be faster to manifest. This means that the damage that is left behind is often deeper. Children can often experience splintered development because of the trauma. If an adult has caused the child harm, they can be even more intensely impacted. This is because children rely so much on the adults that are around them. Developmental trauma can include children who experience high parental conflict in the context of divorce or separation, as well as those who are forced to live with family violence, are abused, and are neglected. 

If someone has experienced a critical incident and they are experiencing trauma, there are a number of different things you can do in order to support yourself and others. This includes…

  • See how your friends are doing. This is especially the case if you have noticed that a friend is withdrawn and seems distant.
  • Encourage your friends to talk about what is bothering them. Do not pressure them to talk or pry for details, though.
  • Acknowledge your friend’s feelings and validate their responses.
  • Encourage your friend to connect with the support that is available to them. This includes family and friends, as well as a counsellor.
  • Try to find a balance. Make sure you stay up-to-date with what is happening yet you also need to make sure you do not become so ingrained in the situation to the point whereby it is the only thing that is going on and is discussed between you and your friend.
  • Encourage your friend to return to their usual routine or to maintain it.
  • Encourage other activities that are relaxing or involve exercising, as they can help. 


Have you experienced a traumatic event? 

If you have experienced a traumatic event in your life, there are a number of different strategies that you can use in order to help you with your recovery.

This includes the following…

  • Do not use drugs or alcohol
  • Manage your general stress levels as best as you can. Be aware that your reactions can be more intense during times of the year whereby you are going to be under pressure.
  • Take some time and then start to return to your normal routines slowly but surely.
  • Take time to do things that relax you and that you enjoy. This will enable your body to respond to the changes it needs. For example, direct angry feelings by going to the gym, cry when you need to, and spend time with the people you love.
  • Make sure you have adequate rest by managing your sleep.
  • Talk to someone you trust. You do not have to face this alone. If you do not have a family member or friend you can talk to, turn to a counsellor. 

After a traumatic event, the normal recovery and healing process means that your body needs to come down from a state of heightened arousal. In more basic words, it means that the high levels of energy must come down and internal alarms need to be turned off. Your body needs to re-set itself to a normal state of equilibrium and balance. This is not going to happen overnight. It will usually occur one month after the event. However, this depends on the event and level of trauma too. 

Hopefully, you now have a better understanding of critical incidents and trauma. We all hope that this information is something that you will never have to put into practice. However, it is imperative that teachers and school staff members are aware of this.

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