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Early Mental Health Intervention Reduces Mass Violence Trauma

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Press Release

Early psychological intervention guided by qualified mental health caregivers can reduce the harmful psychological and emotional effects of exposure to mass violence in survivors, according to a national conference report released today. Experts emphasized that although more research is needed, existing data, including studies of other kinds of traumatic events, as well as clinical experience, provide useful guidance to the mental health community in responding to mass violence.

"School violence, shootings in the workplace, and terrorist acts have increased Americans' exposure to mass violence during the past decade, and psychological interventions are increasingly among the first responses to it. It is vital to the health and well-being of the American people that effective interventions reach the people who need them in a timely and efficient manner," said LTC (Dr.) Elspeth C. Ritchie, U.S. Army, chairperson of the planning committee for the conference.

The report calls on the scientific community to develop a national research program to examine the relative effectiveness of early mental health interventions following exposure to mass violence. Early intervention is defined as any form of psychological intervention delivered within the first four weeks following mass violence or disasters. Examples of early interventions include brief, focused psychotherapeutic intervention and selected cognitive behavioral approaches.

The report says that some interventions—including mass education via media outlets—although beneficial, have the potential for unintended harm. The report recommends that the leadership select professionals who have the training, expertise, accountability, and responsibility required to provide these interventions. Also, the report cites some evidence that early intervention in the form of a single one-to-one recital of events and discussion of emotions evoked by a traumatic event does not consistently reduce risk and may even put some survivors at heightened risk for later developing mental health problems.

The report is targeted to those who deliver these interventions to emotionally distressed persons following mass violence, to those who research these issues, and to employers who want to help workers who have experienced this type of emotional trauma. It is also intended to aid officials who must decide what mental health help to include in the local, state, and national responses to survivors of mass violence and terrorism. Prepared by 58 mental health researchers and clinicians from the U.S. and five other countries, the report details what is effective, what is not, and what questions require further research.

The report provides guidance on screening for mass violence trauma-related mental health problems, on follow-up with trauma-exposed persons, and on the expertise, skills, and training for providers of early intervention services. The report also addresses what is known about timing for various types of early interventions.

Participants agreed that it is sensible to expect persons to recover from the trauma of mass violence, although some groups may be more vulnerable, such as those with preexisting mental disorders. They also agreed that most survivors who show no clinically significant symptoms for approximately two months generally do not require follow-up and that participation of survivors in early intervention sessions should be voluntary.

The report includes an outline of a sample training program for an early intervention workforce. Recognizing that persons who arrive first at a scene of mass violence may not be trained to provide early mental health interventions, participants recommended that early response personnel be trained to make appropriate referrals when additional expertise is needed.

Entitled “Mental Health and Mass Violence: Evidence-Based Early Psychological Intervention for Victims/Survivors of Mass Violence. A Workshop to Reach Consensus on Best Practices," the report was developed by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) at the National Institutes of Health in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the U.S. Departments of Defense, Justice, and Veterans Affairs, and the American Red Cross.

For more information contact the NIMH press office at 301-443-4536; the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Laurie Tranter at 202-273-6000; the U.S. Department of Justice, Adam Spector at 202-307-0703; the U.S. Department of Defense, Jim Turner at 703-697-5135; the American Red Cross, Dana Allen at 703-206-8107.

Coping With Traumatic Events

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About the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH): The mission of the NIMH is to transform the understanding and treatment of mental illnesses through basic and clinical research, paving the way for prevention, recovery and cure. For more information, visit the NIMH website.

About the National Institutes of Health (NIH): NIH, the nation's medical research agency, includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIH is the primary federal agency conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical research, and is investigating the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit the NIH website .