State Surgeon: Critical Incident Stress real but manageable

By Staff Sgt. Mike R. Smith, Guard Times Staff

LATHAM — Thousands of New York National Guard members have experienced combat overseas. Many more walked the ruins of 9/11 and natural disasters including hurricane Katrina. What’s familiar between them is the burden of “Critical Incident Stress,” a stress that’s different from starting a new job or being stuck in traffic.

Critical Incident Stress comes from wartime experiences or serving in the middle of death and disaster. Left unchecked, this type of stress can potentially damage people and missions, experts say.

stressthreeThis is why the Guard wants its members knowledgeable on stress, and learning how to prepare for and handle the National Guard’s critical incidents of stress has become essential.

More than 60 attendees from the New York Army and Air National Guard, Naval Militia, New York Guard, family support and state and federal civilian offices attended Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) training, here, Jan 25 – 27.

The purpose of the training is to certify individuals in CISM skills and ultimately establish regional Joint Crisis Emergency Response Teams (JCERTs), which respond to critical incidents Guard members have and are likely to experience, said Dr. Michael Lonski, trauma psychologist and lead trainer, here.

“This is the proactive way to provide preventive support, education and information that leads to greater health, resiliency and hope for people who experience the after effects from traumatic incidents.”

Police, fire and ambulance services, which share a common disaster role with the Guard, have taken the lead in CISM. Their trainers, said Lonski, have testified before Congress on its value for personal health and well-being. In the training role, here, they don’t replace the Guard’s counseling but complement the “tremendous” work already done.

“This program is designed to identify stressors and counteract their negative effects,” said Col. Russell H. Zelman, State Surgeon and NYARNG Medical Command Commander. “CISM will help keep our Guard members ready to defend our freedom and serve our State.”

stress2The training is conducted in a twofold process: after initial course work, the JCERTs will be certified for critical incident response. This involves making use of their communities to increase response times for unforeseen events like disasters or deaths. Program officials say these actions create a secure safety net to identify area resources and put together local teams of clergy, health professionals, schools and community organizations to participate with CISM’s proactive outreach.

At the one-on-one level, said Lonski, preparing for future events, including deployments, will “give a leg up on awareness.” Listening to and helping each other is a major part of CISM’s outreach plan, during, and after, incidents.

It is really a peer model based on peers who trust one another, Lonski said. You wouldn’t send someone into combat without training them, and this is like emotional hazards training where your learning how to metabolize stress; one student shared an analogy that, like a diabetic who needs assistance to metabolize built-up sugars, stress builds up in the body and must also be “metabolized” through peer assistance.

“The buddy system works,” Zelman said. “We find it in the Boy Scouts, the military and even in the operating rooms in our hospitals. We are training many different groups in our CISM to saturate all that will come in contact with disaster victims.”

“No one who has experienced a critical incident is untouched by it,” Lonski said.

This helps keep peers strong, it gives peers the tools for listening and asking each other if they are “all right” to where its second nature. Helping each other in the appropriate time in the appropriate way, so no one is stigmatized, grief is respected but the layers of stress are lifted away.

“The greater number of CISM trained Soldiers, Airman, family readiness members, psychologists, social workers and medics the better off our Guard members will be,” Zelman said. He explained that preventive therapy is “much cheaper” than therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder, which is extensive.”

The ultimate goal is to prevent the progression of stress from wartime and natural disasters, Zelman said. “Our trained personnel will see the signs … and hopefully provide some support.”

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