It’s a situation one never hopes to encounter: the situation where you witness someone’s death. Some 200 metres from my office, in the early and sunny morning, a woman was killed in a truck versus cyclist accident. I did not witness the accident myself, but several passers-by and – of course – the truck driver did.
News reports about the accident seemed to indicate that the witnesses were debriefed by trauma counsellors. It sounds like the most humane thing to do. We all believe there is truth in the idea that “it’s good to talk”, even though women might feel more strongly about this practise than the average man does.
But a report published in Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics some three years ago casts serious doubt on this practise. The study echoed the same conclusion as an earlier Dutch study on the subject that was published in The Lancet a year earlier. Debriefing after a traumatic event has no effect in most cases, and can even hinder recovery. Experts from both studies have called for an abandonment of debriefing. Group counselling, however, where people who suffered a traumatic experience together are debriefed together in a structured environment, has not yet been evaluated in a rigorous manner and according to experts remain vitally important.
The psyche continues to be an elusive “organ” in the human body. I can only hope that the witnesses will have some benifit of talking about their experience, with counsellors or just with friends and family. But I’m afraid no solid, scientifically validated intervention can soothe the truck driver who is responsible for taking someone’s life and the family of the victim who will never see their loved one again. At least not on the short-term.