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Violence Prevention: Psychological Harm from Traumatic Events Among Children and Adolescents – Psychological Debriefing


What the CPSTF Found

About The Systematic Review

The CPSTF finding is based on evidence from a systematic review of 1 study (search period through March 2007). The review was conducted on behalf of the CPSTF by a team of specialists in systematic review methods, and in research, practice, and policy related to violence prevention.


Psychological debriefing, also known as critical incident stress management, is a group meeting offered 24–72 hours after a traumatic event, prior to the assessment of symptoms, for the purpose of integrating profound personal experiences on both cognitive and emotional levels—intended to prevent the development of adverse reactions.

Summary of Results

Detailed results from the systematic review are available in the CPSTF finding pdf icon [PDF - 127 KB].

One study was included in the systematic review.

  • The findings for three outcomes (depression, anxiety, and PTSD) were in the undesirable direction (ranging from a 3% relative increase in depression among the intervention group compared to the control group to an 11% relative increase in PTSD symptoms); none of these effects were significant.
  • Harms reported in some reviews of psychological debriefing among adults indicate a need for caution in research and application of this intervention to children and adolescents.

Summary of Economic Evidence

An economic review of this intervention was not conducted because the CPSTF did not have enough information to determine if the intervention works.


Applicability of this intervention across different settings and populations was not assessed because the CPSTF did not have enough information to determine if the intervention works.

Evidence Gaps

The CPSTF identified several areas that have limited information. Additional research and evaluation could help fill remaining gaps in the evidence base. (What are evidence gaps?)

The following outlines evidence gaps from these reviews on reducing psychological harms from traumatic events: Individual CBT; Group CBT; Play Therapy; Art Therapy; Psychodynamic Therapy; Pharmacological Therapy; Psychological Debriefing.

  • Identification of robust predictors of transient and enduring symptoms following traumatic events would allow for better screening of exposed children and adolescents and more efficient allocation of treatment resources.
  • The optimal timing of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) intervention following the exposure and the onset of symptoms is important to assess.
  • It would be useful to stratify the outcomes of CBT treatment by the severity of patient PTSD symptoms and history. For example, it would be useful to know whether children and adolescents with multiple traumatic exposures require more intensive or longer treatment.
  • One study with long term follow-up indicates that it may take a year after the end of the intervention for benefits to appear. This outcome should be replicated. If confirmed, it suggests that follow-up periods of less than one year are not adequate and may erroneously indicate intervention ineffectiveness.
  • The cost effectiveness and differential cost effectiveness of individual and group CBT among children and adolescents should be explored.
  • The effectiveness of individual and group CBT among minority populations, especially in communities in which violence is prevalent, should be further explored.
  • Adaptations of CBT involving the recruitment, training, deployment, and supervision of nonprofessionals should be evaluated, and their applicability to low-income countries should also be explored.

Furthermore, the finding of insufficient evidence to determine the effectiveness of several of the interventions reviewed highlights the need for additional well-controlled studies of these interventions. Because CBT has been found to be an effective intervention, and because research funds are limited, it would be useful to adopt CBT as a comparison in future evaluations. Because of harms reported for psychological debriefing among adults, caution should be taken in research on this intervention with children and adolescents.

Study Characteristics

  • The study was a randomized trial of the treatment of children and adolescents (aged 7–18 years) following a traffic crash.
  • Approximately 4 weeks after the crash—an unusually long delay compared with usual practice— psychological debriefing was administered to the intervention group, and the comparison group received a non-crash talk treatment (in which the topic of the crash was not supposed to be addressed).
  • The study did not note use of a manual or report assessment of fidelity.