Shane Moran: The clouds that can surround a school

The following is an extract from The clouds that can surround a school by Shane Moran. The book looks at how to recognise. respond to and manage a critical incident in the school environment

Those menacing clouds

Categorising a critical incident

It is useful to understand that, for me, there are three types of critical incident. In order to provide a sense of clarity, I find it beneficial to use the analogy of the categorisation of weather events which the Irish Meteorological Service adopts to illustrate to the general public the severity of an impending weather event.

Depending on the severity of the weather, they adopt the system of yellow, amber and red warnings, thus informing the public of the type of weather, and enabling the public to become aware and prepare for possible weather-related damage. This information system has proved extremely helpful in providing exact and useful information to the general public, offering clarity around what can be expected and how best to make precautionary plans.

Depending on the particular level prescribed to the critical incident, it will of course demand a different sort of approach

A critical incident, I suggest, can be categorised in a similar way. This type of approach can provide a clear understanding for those dealing with a critical incident and support the implementation of their critical incident plan. It will help to determine the type and level of support that may be required for the whole school community. So, let us examine what type of event may fit into the different categories.

Under the category ‘Yellow’ you may place:

  • A relative of a member of the school/educational community has been injured, become seriously ill, or has passed away.
  • An intrusion into school by an angry member of the public involving a verbal assault.
  • An accident resulting in minor injuries.
  • A fire or flooding that does not involve any injury.
  • A student becoming ill or hurt requiring medical assessment and treatment within the school.

Under the category ‘Amber’ you may wish to place:

  • A road traffic accident, or any incident involving
  • serious injury.
  • Industrial accidents involving serious injuries or fatalities.
  • Sudden or unexplained death of a friend, relative or
  • Robbery and violent crime.
  • Child protection and welfare concerns.
  • A near-death experience or any life-threatening experience.
  • Being a witness to another critical incident in the community or elsewhere.
  • Being a witness to an unethical act.
  • Raised awareness and concern over the mental health of a member of the school/educational community.

Under the category ‘Red’ you may wish to place:

  • A tragic death of a member of the community.
  • Suicide or attempted suicide.
  • A criminal incident such as a murder.
  • Sexual assault.
  • Road traffic accident involving fatalities.
  • An act of terrorism.
  • An intrusion into the school involving an assault,
  • abduction or death.
  • Child abuse.
  • Multiple injury/fatality accidents.
  • A community disaster.
  • The disappearance of a member of the school/educational community.
  • An accident involving members of the school/educational community.

As you can imagine, the lists in these categories are not exhaustive. I have presented them in this way to provide a clear understanding that not all critical incidents can be treated the same.

Depending on the particular level prescribed to the critical incident, it will of course demand a different sort of approach. An example of this would be if the school received word that a relative of a student had passed away after a short illness; it would be appropriate that this student could be supported through the pastoral support team and school chaplain.

A manager may feel that they can’t allow themselves to feel emotional – who else can take charge? – and weakness is not an option

However, if the school received news that a student had taken their own life then a more formal approach would be required from the school’s critical incident team and perhaps an external psychological support team. The impact from the latter example would naturally be immense.

In conclusion, the above categorisation will, I hope, serve as a guide to school management in their attempt to assess the emotional and psychological needs of the whole school/educational community.

The storm effect of those clouds

The ‘Wallop effect’

In dealing with those who are undergoing great suffering, if you feel ‘burnout’ setting in, if you feel demoralized and exhausted, it is best, for the sake of everyone, to withdraw and restore yourself. The point is to have a long-term perspective.” – Dalai Lama

Dealing with a critical incident that falls into either the yellow or amber categories would not have an overbearing emotional impact on people not directly involved. But critical incidents within the red category will have an impact on all members within the school community.

The danger can arise for us when we either ignore or fail to recognise this. Some may feel that they are ‘strong’ and too experienced or indeed feel they are too busy to feel any emotional or psychological impact.

Our strength both as an individual and within a team comes from our preparedness and our own self-awareness

A manager may feel that they can’t allow themselves to feel emotional – who else can take charge? – and weakness is not an option. A teacher may feel they can distract themselves with extra work and avoid any emotional impact whatsoever.

It is incumbent on all of us, managers, teachers, critical response team psychologists/therapists, to acknowledge that a red-level critical incident will have a big emotional and psychological impact on us, no matter who we are.

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Admitting this will be the first step in addressing our own mental health and will enable us to be in a better position to help those in our care. We are then better equipped as both a managerial and support team to ‘park’ our own emotions so they can be acknowledged and addressed at an appropriate time.

Only then are we better placed to help support those in our school community who immediately need our support. Our strength both as an individual and within a team comes from our preparedness and our own self-awareness.

The ‘wallop effect’, is how I would describe the emotional tsunami that can hit those on the front line, like management and the critical incident team

It is that ability to be prepared that is extremely important. I have referred previously to the importance of keeping active the critical incident policy in the school. Linked to this is the importance of our own individual abilities. Both the manager and the critical incident team will bring a wide range of expertise to the table when they begin to address the critical incident event, but this is no good unless there is an honest assessment of the needs of the team itself.

I guess what I mean by this is that anyone dealing with a traumatic event, both directly and indirectly, needs to ensure they look after their own mental health during and after the critical incident. So, the helpers need to be knowledgeable of self-care techniques and practise them; this in turn will soften the impact of the ‘wallop effect’.

This term, the ‘wallop effect’, is how I would describe the emotional tsunami that can hit those on the front line, like management and the critical incident team. It is a way of describing a form of post-traumatic stress disorder that can envelop any team when dealing with a traumatic event.

Most people may assume that this is something that can only affect war veterans, but this is not the case; it can affect anyone traumatised by a critical incident. To alleviate its effect, it is important to be aware of it, and learn to incorporate self-care strategies into your daily routine.

Self-care is a fundamental requirement for all those involved in managing a critical incident event, particularly those who are part of the immediate support team. I will address this issue further in later chapters. We now need to look at how a red-level critical incident can impact on us emotionally and psychologically.

PTSD usually follows after a period of time or, to put it another way, there is often a delay factor with PTSD

In other words, let us examine the ‘wallop’ and assess its impact. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is most associated with people who are battle-scarred from military combat. It is an anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to a terrifying event or ordeal. There is increasing evidence that PTSD can affect those involved in any serious traumatic incident (McFarlane AC, 2007 and Pietrzak RH, 2014).

PTSD can develop following a traumatic event that threatens your safety or makes you feel helpless. Any series of events that overwhelms you with feelings of hopelessness and helplessness can trigger PTSD, especially if the events are unpredictable and uncontrollable. It is worth noting that children and adolescents can also suffer from PTSD as a result of experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event.

PTSD usually follows after a period of time or, to put it another way, there is often a delay factor with PTSD. Support teams need to realise and recognise this delayed impact in themselves, and also its effect on those within the school community who have been traumatised by a serious critical incident.

In other words, the bigger the ‘wallop’, the more pronounced the bruise

Symptoms primarily develop after the incident; the person will in some way relive the traumatic event and will attempt to avoid thinking about it. They will do anything to avoid the intrusive thoughts and this will inevitably lead to difficulties in sleeping habits and appetite. Sometimes a person experiencing PTSD will become irritated with feelings of guilt, and may come out with statements such as “If only…” or “I could have prevented it…” or “I should have…”. Interestingly, this will only add to those feelings of both hopelessness and helplessness.

I would suggest that, as a rule of thumb, the worse or more enduring the trauma, the greater the likelihood of having the symptoms associated with PTSD. In other words, the bigger the ‘wallop’, the more pronounced the bruise. It is worth remembering that PTSD can affect those who personally experience the incident, those who witness it, and those who pick up the pieces afterwards, including emergency personnel like the police and ambulances services. It can unfold in the friends or family members of those who went through the actual trauma. Older adults are less likely to develop symptoms than younger ones and about half of people recover within a few months; for others it can last much longer.

Author details
The Clouds That Can Surround a School by Shane Moran was published in 2017 by Matador, an imprint of Troubador Publishing Ltd.

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