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:: Chaplain's Blog

By Terry Morgan, Senior Chaplain

Responding to Critical Incidents

The air is cool and crisp. The clouds in the air seem to be threatening rain, but so far, it is a nice spring morning. An apparent suicide has come across the police scanner, and you are rushing to the scene. This is not your first suicide, and as the crime reporter, you have seen more than your share of shattered lives, and bodies.

The grim look on the faces of the deputies suggests “this is a bad one”. Over the years you have become familiar with their body language. A familiar face helps ease your apprehensions, as he points to a plastic tarp. The deputy looks at you, and waves you over. “This is him.” He says, pointing to a tarp. “He appears to be about thirteen years old. What could be so bad at that age to make him want to do this?”

You pull your jacket a little tighter as the breeze picks up with a stinging chill. The wind catches the edge of the tarp and suddenly blows it up and off the body. You are shocked to see the young boy laying there. His dead eyes seem to stare right through you. When you first walked up, it was just another body. Now, it was a real, young person laying there. It just became personal. “What a waste!” you think, as you fight back unexpected tears. “How could God allow this?”

You get in the car to leave. Your boss calls. He wants you to interview the parents. “What in the world can I say to them?” You wonder. But, it’s your job. The interview goes about as bad as you expected. Both parents are hysterical, and treat you like some kind of ghoul. The next few days, you can’t seem to get the images out of your mind. You are emotional, have insomnia, lose your appetite, and generally just don’t feel normal.

Does this sound familiar to you? If you have been reporting for any length of time, it is very likely you have gone to scenes you didn’t feel prepared to see. Some of the sights, sounds, and smells you experience at a critical incident can change you. When you are in the middle of the story, you don’t always have the option of just walking away, or even to catch your breath. I once heard someone say, “At scenes like this, things get on you that you just can’t wash off”.

Critical incidents come in a variety of shapes and sizes. They may involve the very old, the very young, or anyone in between. A critical incident usually involves a death, and can be described as anything that overcomes our normal coping mechanisms. A reporter will see many things in a course of a career that will rock them back on their heels. A reporter may work alongside first responders and witness the worst, most horrific incidents imaginable. Yet, they are expected to be calm, cool, and collected, and always act professionally.

We all respond to critical incident stress in our own unique way. Reactions to such events are perfectly normal, and to be expected. But these events may affect each of us in different ways. A reporter who has never had children may not have a reaction to a child death. This same reporter, however, may be impacted by the death of an elderly person who reminds them of a parent. A lot also depends upon how gruesome or horrific the scene. Other factors include the age and sex of the person involved, the innocence factor, and the thoughts one has about the incident. The critical incident may have a great impact or only a minimal influence. A lot depends on the support system the correspondent has in place.

Psychologist Victor Frankle was a Nazi concentration camp survivor. He spent five years in Auschwitz and other concentration camps. He wrote a book about his experiences called, “Man’s Search for Meaning”. He describes the horrors he saw and experienced. Frankle wrote, “An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior.”

Many reporters, especially those just starting their careers, think they are invincible. They have a kind of “John Wayne mentality”. They may even say,”Nothing gets to me.” However, they often have a wake-up call when they experience a critical incident. They suddenly find themselves being emotional, and impacted.

There are a few survival strategies for critical incident stress. The first is simply to know you will experience a critical incident and you will probably react “abnormally”. You may be emotional, and even cry. You may have other physical reactions such as throwing up, the shakes, loose bowels, stomach upset, etc. These and many more are all normal reactions to critical incident stress. Symptoms may come immediately, within the first few hours, up to even weeks later.

Many reporters find themselves going into an “automatic pilot” mode. During these times reporters realize they have a job to do, and will do that job until they are finished. Some may not be aware of any symptoms until after going off automatic pilot; after clearing the scene.

The second survival technique is to talk things out with a trustworthy person. Press4hope was created out of this need. They provide experienced Chaplains and peers who have “been there”. Their support can be very helpful.

Most people are very resilient. Supportive, understanding people add to the resiliency of a reporter. Most people will get better even with no intervention, but those who speak with someone trained in critical incident stress management will get back to a feeling of normalcy much sooner.

The next piece of the strategy is taking care of yourself physically. When you experience a traumatic incident such as being at a violent crime scene, your adrenaline level may spike. Thousands of chemicals dump into your body helping you “survive the shock” and deal with the sights, sounds, and smells. These chemicals need to be burned, or purged. Physical activity and drinking plenty of water helps flush many of these away. Avoid self medicating, including alcohol, caffeine, or sugar. You add even more chemicals to the mix when you do this, which works against your body’s ability to get back to normal.

Having trouble sleeping is a common complaint for people after a critical incident. Vigorous exercise helps sweat out more chemicals, and also helps you sleep. Adopting a routine including regular exercise, going to bed at the same time each day and sleeping in a cool, quiet, dark room helps combat the effects of critical incident stress.

Finally, give yourself time. Just as everyone reacts differently to a critical incident, we also recover differently. We are each unique and need time to mend. Sometimes talking with a Chaplain or peer support is just what is needed to know that you are on the right track and the “new normal” is just around the corner.

People in the press must often see the horrific. They see the very worst evil that society has to offer. But Christian journalists have not only a responsibility to report, but a great opportunity. When Christian journalists recount the stories of people at their very worst, they clearly reveal our desperate need for Jesus Christ. A candle always shines brightest when the night is darkest.