The trauma that lingers after a critical incident can be debilitating. It causes happy couples to terminate their marriages, imbalances emotionally stable people, and deprives people of sleep. On the other side of that trauma is hope. Interventions like post critical incident seminars (PCIS) help corrections staff find renewed hope and help them regain a positive outlook on life. First developed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1983, PCIS was later developed for use with first responders in South Carolina in 2000.
In 2018, PCIS became an official trademark of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Assistance Program, outlining the fundamental standards of PCIS events. It operates as a three-day event that helps corrections staff address ongoing mental health issues stemming from traumatic events experienced both on and off the job. It is not a cure-all but rather a single intervention in a broader plan for recovery.
The seminar begins with participants sharing their traumatic incident with the group. The next day, participants are placed into breakout groups to dive deeper into the effects of their traumatic experience. Now, they might engage in sessions in alignment with Critical Incident Stress Management Peer Support, complete mindfulness activities, or work with a trauma dog. Spouses and partners can attend PCIS alongside participating staff, not only to provide support but also to receive help with their own vicarious trauma. Mental health professionals work with participants outside of the group therapy sessions and breakouts to provide them with one-on-one help.
“What the PCIS does is offer various tools to work with,” says Karin Ho, director of the Division of Victim Services and Critical Incident Stress Management Peer Support Program with the South Carolina Department of Corrections. “We discuss normal trauma reactions. We talk about addiction issues. We talk about medications, very frankly about mental health, and the medication interventions that can be used or not used.
“And we also give them resiliency tools,” Ho says. “We discuss what [people] can do moving forward. Are [they] aware of meditation? Mindfulness drumming? Different things that may help [them] individually in…situations moving forward.”
Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing is one treatment that has become a key component of the program. It works by balancing the bilateral stimulation in the brain. As a person thinks about a traumatic experience, she moves her eyes to alleviate unpleasant reactions. Over time, she develops new connections in the brain.
Medical massage therapy is another key treatment. Professional massage therapists help participants reduce stress and relax their muscles to help them alleviate the physical pain and misalignments throughout the body that trauma can cause. Understanding the mind-body relationship can help participants realize how they may be carrying stress in their bodies without realizing the connection.
While PCIS doesn’t work for everyone, it has worked for many people.
Stephanie Tandarich, PCIS coordinator with the Missouri Department of Corrections, says that on a personal level, the program helped her navigate through multiple incidents that had previously caused her anxiety.
“Prior to my own PCIS experience, I tended to isolate myself when facing a stressful situation…. I now find myself sharing more of my experiences… [and] engaging in physical activity…to manage stress and maintain a healthier mindset.”
Other participants throughout the years have reported similar results. This information is beneficial for those who have not experienced the program. When curious observers see the program for themselves, they begin to understand and trust the process. Many are inspired to share their experience with others or implement the program or a variation of it with their own agencies.
Ho was first introduced to PCIS, by Eric Skidmore, Director of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Assistance Program Team that provides services to law enforcement throughout South Carolina. After observing a PCIS that he hosted for first responders on the front-line, Ho realized how powerful PCIS could be for participants. It was such a powerful experience that she became convinced that the event needed to be made available to correctional staff.
In 2022, Meckenzie Hayes, manager of Trauma-Informed Employee Care in Missouri observed a PCIS event with the Missouri, State Highway Patrol. “After attending, it was clear to me that PCIS was an opportunity that we couldn’t ignore,” Hayes says. “I remember saying to my supervisor, “We can’t NOT do this!” A short time later, after she had reviewed all the materials, I received a sticky note on my desk that simply said, ‘Let’s get started.’”
Today, 13 states provide some form of PCIS for emergency response staff. Many of these programs are for law enforcement, fire fighters, and emergency medical services professionals. South Carolina and Missouri are the only two programs specifically designed for correctional staff.
Through networking and technical assistance from the National Institute of Corrections, South Carolina and Missouri have worked together to implement and improve implementation of PCIS in their respective states.
“The collaborative spirit demonstrated by South Carolina's team and the shared exchange of best practices have been incredibly beneficial for us,” Tandarich says. “Working together has not only enriched our PCIS initiative but has also established a strong foundation for ongoing learning and improvement.”
“We anticipated our biggest challenge being buy-in…but it really hasn’t been,” Hayes says. “Corrections staff are starving for the long overdue support and acknowledgement of the difficult and often traumatic work they do each and every day... We have never received a shortage of applications.”
Now in its second year, Missouri PCIS says there have been numerous benefits for staff, including the improved mental health of those who participate, the improved relationships that participants have with their colleagues and families, and the cultural shift that the entire organization experienced from staff sharing with others how PCIS has helped them. The program has also led the Missouri Department of Corrections to increase networking with mental health agencies, clinical providers, and law enforcement in the community, which has helped raise awareness among these groups about the role of corrections as a partner in first response.
Since South Carolina’s program began, Ho has worked with NIC to deliver a series of webinars on PCIS, including Promoting Wellness and Resiliency in Correctional Staff and Post Critical Incident Seminar: Implementation & Best Practices in a Correctional Setting. Missouri has also presented with South Carolina at national conferences.