Introduction — the Nature of the CrisisThe crisis that I’ve chosen to talk about is a hostage situation at a credit union in Jacksonville. There are a few aspects of this hostage situation that I think are important. First, there were a large number of kidnapping victims all at once. Second, the kidnapper actually threatened to kill them, instead of just implying that he might — the explicit threat of death is more worrying than the implicit threat, because the explicit threat implies that the threat-maker is closer to carrying out the threat. Third, the kidnapper exhibited signs of serious irrationality while he was holding the hostages. By way of example, he asked negotiators to put him in touch with his family members. This is also likely to exacerbate the stress that the hostages feel/felt, because an irrational person is a more dangerous person in such a situation; moreover, it is also possible he was intending to say goodbye to his family members and commit some sort of murder-suicide. In any event, such behavior would doubtless be very worrying to a hostage.
Steps to Alleviate the Crisis
The first thing to consider when debriefing the victim in a situation such as this one is the necessity of immediate intervention to alleviate the crisis — that is, to help the victim recover in a healthful manner from the stress response (Beukman & Conradie, 2007). It is important to keep in mind, first and foremost, that the stress response varies enormously from individual to individual. There is consequently no one “correct” response to a crisis. The correct response is whatever helps the victims of the crisis return to a state of normalcy.
The first step, consequently, is allowing and encouraging the victim to vent the emotions that they are feeling as a result of their experience. This is helpful in and of itself; it also is critical for shaping the intervention as it develops. The victim’s own venting will provide guidance on how to better help guide the victim through the process. In the present case, nobody died, and so the victim’s emotions are likely to not be guilty ones; rather, there is likely to be a mix of anger, residual fear, and extreme relief at being rescued. A victim may not be especially willing to vocalize their feelings of fear, especially a male victim. It is consequently important to ask gentle probing questions if it seems that the individual is being reticent about their experience. It is also important that this venting be met with validation and above all not with judgment.
The next step in the crisis intervention process is forecasting responses and reactions that are likely to develop out of this event. Where a negative response seems likely, it can be important to provide alternatives. For instance, where an individual expresses a desire to drink alcohol or to drive home to see his family while in a stressed state, it can be necessary to gently encourage him to wait for a period of time.
Teaching Coping Skills
Teaching coping skills and developing resiliency are, in my opinion, best done in small groups (“Critical Incident Stress Debriefing From a Traumatic Event,” n.d.). There are a few reasons for this. The first is that effective debriefing involves an attempt to draw positive notes from the experience as well as help the victims overcome the negative emotions that they associate with it. Because these positive experiences are likely to be much less significant to them than their negative ones, it is effective if a group of victims are present so that each can observe that the slight positive experience was also shared by others (and is consequently real rather than just imagined or hoped for).
Teaching coping skills involves building on what was accomplished in the first step (the in person, one-on-one discussion of the topic) in a small group. Lessons learned are highlighted, and victims are encouraged to focus on the parts of their life that make them feel safe rather than vulnerable and loved rather than isolated. The important thing, again, is that there is no one-size-fits-all approach. People have idiosyncratic responses to stress, and consequently they will need tailored coping measures.
Assisting the Development of Resiliency
The final step — developing resilience — can be the most challenging if proper coping strategies are not taught, but also has the potential to flow naturally from the previous step. It is for this reason that I prefer to also conduct the teaching coping skills portion of the intervention in a small group. Although “teaching” coping skills seems to invoke concepts of education, it is really this last step more than anything else that requires education and explanation (Everly & Lating, 2002). The crisis interventionist must assist the affected individuals in putting their experience in context, and in understanding how they can better deal with stressful situations — either the recurrence of fears related to this occurrence or some other kind of stress — in the future. This requires helping the affected individuals feel some sort of “closure” to the event. The interventionist will need to talk them through what will happen next, and wherever possible emphasize facts that highlight that the danger is past. For instance, discussing the possibility that they might be permitted to testify against this bank-robber and hostage taker, but likely would not be required to, or discussing the efficiency and effectiveness of the local justice system, or anything of that nature.
It is often overlooked that crisis intervention is hard. People are complex systems, and they are even more complex and consequently difficult to predict and adequately respond to when they are disrupted by a severe stressor. The hostage scenario in Jacksonville is just such a stressor. The crisis intervention strategy that I have discussed will allow an interventionist such as myself to successfully assist victims in dealing with their trauma healthfully.
- Beukman, B., & Conradie, H. (2007). Debriefing victims of crime-the role of the criminologist. Acta Criminologica: Southern African Journal of Criminology, 20(4), 106–114.
- Critical Incident Stress Debriefing From a Traumatic Event. (n.d.).
- Everly, G. S., & Lating, J. M. (2002). Management of Acute Distress through a Comprehensive Model of Crisis Intervention for Mass Disasters and Terrorism. In A Clinical Guide to the Treatment of the Human Stress Response (pp. 339–352). Springer US.