Status: No Research Support/Treatment is Potentially Harmful
Psychological debriefing is a formal version of providing emotional and psychological support immediately following a traumatic event; the goal of psychological debriefing is to prevent the development of post-traumatic stress disorder and other negative sequelae. Most psychological debriefing interventions involve a single session which might last between one and three hours, in the days immediately following a traumatic event. The timing of the treatment, and the qualifications of the personnel who deliver psychological debriefing, varies; psychological debriefing is often provided in groups. Psychological debriefing packages differ, and have gone by various names: crisis intervention approaches, group psychological debriefing, critical incident stress debriefing, and process debriefing, to name a few.
Although individuals tend to report that debriefing is helpful short after it has been administered, the medium- and long-term effect of psychological debriefing on response to trauma is highly questionable. In fact, one meta-analysis found that psychological debriefing following a traumatic event was associated with increased post-traumatic symptoms relative to no treatment (Van Emmerik et al., 2002). It has been suggested that psychological debriefing may interfere with natural recovery processes following a traumatic event. Psychological debriefing is not the same as brief cognitive-behavior therapy (CBT) administered for acute stress disorder, which is delivered approximately 2 weeks following a trauma, and lasts for four to five sessions; brief CBT appears to have strong research support (cf., Bryant, Sackville, Dangh, Moulds, & Guthrie, 1999; Foa, Hearst-Ikeda, & Perry, 1995).
Key References (in reverse chronological order)
McNally, R., Bryant, R.A., Ehlers, A. (2003). Does early psychological intervention promote recovery from posttraumatic stress? Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 4, 45-79.
Van Emmerik, A.A.P., Kamphuls, J.H., Hulsbosch, A.M., & Emmelkamp, P.M.G. (2002). Single session debriefing after psychological trauma: A meta-analysis. The Lancet, 360, 766-771.
Lewis, S.J. (2003). Do one-shot preventative interventions for PTSD work? A systematic research synthesis of psychological debriefings. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 8, 329-343.