Stress Management Team Trained to Respond to Campus Crises

Stress Management Team Trained to Respond to Campus Crises

By Alexis BlueUniversity Communications
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The deadly 2002 shooting in the College of Nursing led to the development of a team of UA employees trained to offer peer support in a crisis. (Photo courtesy of Dave Swihart)
The deadly 2002 shooting in the College of Nursing led to the development of a team of UA employees trained to offer peer support in a crisis. (Photo courtesy of Dave Swihart)
Dave Swihart leads the University of Arizona's Critical Incident Stress Management Team.
Dave Swihart leads the University of Arizona's Critical Incident Stress Management Team.

When a crisis occurs on campus, it can be hard for some members of the community to get back on their feet and return to business as usual. That's where the University of Arizona's Critical Incident Stress Management Team comes in.

Available to support those affected by crisis on campus, CISM team members are UA employees trained to respond to a variety of campus emergencies, from incidents affecting a small group of people, such as a nonviolent student outburst in a classroom, to more serious events, such as those involving deaths on campus. 

This year, the UA's team grew from less than 10 members to its current 24 following an on-campus training by representatives from the International Critical Stress Foundation. The foundation conducts trainings in the CISM crisis intervention system for businesses and organizations throughout the world. The system has even been selected by the United Nations for use with its employees following disasters, said Dave Swihart, leader of the UA CISM team, which is also part of the UA Campus Emergency Response Team.

Members of the CISM team don't offer therapy; they provide a sort of "psychological first aid" to help individuals and groups get through the emotional and psychological aftermath of a crisis, Swihart said. They also work to identify those individuals who may need extra help recovering from trauma, perhaps due to past experiences in their lives. 

"What we're wanting to do is normalize people's reactions and help give them some self-care tips, some coping tips," Swihart said. "Part of the effect of trauma is that people sort of stop thinking and need to be assisted in moving forward. The goal is to get people back to optimal functioning as quickly as possible" for the benefit of the individual and the organization as a whole. 

It's rare for a university to have people trained in CISM, Swihart said. He identifies two major events that led to the creation of the team on campus. The first was Sept. 11 and the second was the deadly 2002 shooting at the UA College of Nursing, in which a disgruntled nursing student shot and killed three professors before taking his own life.

At the time of the nursing shootings, Swihart, an employee assistance counselor with Life & Work Connections, and Darci Thompson, director of Life & Work Connections, were the only people on campus trained in CISM. They worked with students and employees of the College of Nursing for two years to help them return to normalcy following the tragedy.  

While the campus also received support from outside agencies after the shooting, Swihart and his colleagues thought it would be beneficial to train more campus community members, who are familiar with the University, to support to their peers.

"The campus is kind of a unique place. It has its own culture," said Swihart, who is also a licensed professional counselor. "We felt if we created a team drawn from people on campus it would be a good idea."

A small team of about seven or eight members was established about three years ago, Swihart said. Today, the team's 24 members include employees of Residence Life, Human Resources and the Mel & Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health. While a background in counseling is not required to be trained in CISM, many UA team members do have experience working in mental health related fields, Swihart said. 

The team responds to an average of 20 to 30 incidents a year, ranging from workplace accidents to suicide attempts to student deaths and more, Swihart said. The number of responders varies depending on the scale of a situation. Calls for assistance often come from the University of Arizona Police Department, the Dean of Students Office or from affected campus departments.

Those in need of crisis support can call Life & Work Connections at 621-2493.

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