Critical Incident Support

A resource for the SFU community.


What is a Critical Incident?

A Critical Incident (or Significant Event) is normally a traumatic event that creates a strong emotional reaction. This reaction may interfere with an individual’s ability to manage normal day-to-day activities or have a large negative impact on the people involved or community members that have in some way been involved. We have a large population of people from diverse backgrounds and experiences from all around the world. A caring and healthy community looks out for community members that may be impacted and responds with empathy and compassion.

People and communities are resilient. They often have the resources to manage the impact of a critical event without the intervention of a professional care provider. This is to be encouraged, as it helps people and communities build their resilience and coping skills, as well as confidence in these skills, on their own. However, SFU Health & Counselling Services (HCS) can assist with assessing an appropriate response.

Examples of types of Critical Incidents

  • Serious injury or death of a colleague, student, friend, child or other family member
  • Mass casualty incident (such as earthquakes or bombings)
  • Incidents involving excessive violence
  • A bad accident

What is Critical Incident stress?

  • A normal reaction to an abnormal event
  • Reactions vary between individuals and may include physical, emotional, cognitive, and behavioural factors
  • It may be evident immediately after a distressing event, or may not surface for hours, days, or weeks after the event
  • It is not a sign of human weakness

Signs and symptoms of Critical Incident stress


  • Sleep disorders
  • Eating disturbances
  • Nightmares
  • Headaches
  • Chills
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Chest pain
  • Increased heart rate/perspiration
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Decreased sexual drive


  • Guilt (about surviving or not doing more to help)
  • Grief/sorrow/denial
  • Panic/anxiety/fear
  • Depression
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Irritability/agitation
  • Loss of emotional control/inappropriate emotional response


  • Confusion/uncertainty
  • Blaming someone
  • Intrusive images
  • Flashbacks
  • Short-term memory problems
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Heightened/lowered alertness
  • Lack of concentration
  • Hypervigilance


  • Withdrawal
  • Crying spells
  • Loss of interest in normal activities
  • Increased use of drugs/alcohol
  • Emotional outbursts
  • Suspiciousness
  • Antisocial acts
  • Nonspecific bodily complaints
  • Inability to rest/pacing
  • Compulsive need to discuss incident


Below are some examples of common responses that can occur and are sometimes requested after a Critical Incident.  An initial assessment is important to determine what actions should be taken and when. A large event may require broader crisis response planning. Health & Counselling Services can assist.


  • Defusing is required if upon learning of a traumatic event a person needs immediate support to function 
  • Examples: uncontrollable or incapacitating grief or anger 
  • A person may need to be consoled, see a counsellor, or be with loved ones that can take care of them 
  • People who are close to the upset person are often the best to support them in the moment 
  • Resources on campus that can assist are Security and Health & Counselling Services
  • When it should happen: It is triggered by an uncontrollable emotion response by an individual

Information Session or Town Hall

  • When people do not have enough info, they can sometimes come to the wrong conclusion, or engage in unhealthy information sharing
  • Information Session or Townhall is organized to provide known facts, clarify what cannot be shared yet - and when it will be, provide information about boundaries or why confidentiality may be required and supports that are available or will become available
  • The information shared may even be that there is a lack of information, and that more will be forthcoming
  • It is not meant as therapy, it is meant to bring together communities, such as a department and acknowledge that something significant is happening or just happened, and share resources 
  • Sometimes this information is enough to support a community
  • When it should happen: During an extended significant event, or after the event. It can be arranged fairly quickly, anytime within 48 hours
  • Who should put it on: It can be arranged by a departmental manager. Someone from HCS can assist if required

Critical Incident Debrief

  • A Critical Incident Debrief (CID) is a specific form of intervention offered when it has been identified that there is a group or groups of people who are having trouble coping several days after a Critical Incident
  • CID should be used in the context of a broader support plan
  • Other forms of intervention may be more effective – an assessment is important to determine if a CID is the appropriate response
  • When it should happen: Usually several days after the event has ended. It is important the event has ended. CID can be a major undertaking and if not arranged properly, or if it is arranged when not required, it could have a negative impact. Proper assessment is important
  • Who should put it on: It can be arranged by a departmental manager with the assistance of professional care providers. Someone from HCS can assist if required, and a counsellor may attend. Another resource that may be used is WorkSafeBC

Quick tips

What you can do to help yourself

  • Talk to family, friends, counsellors, or others who you know and are comfortable around
  • Get plenty of rest. Get some exercise, even if it’s simply walking
  • Try keeping a journal to write down your thoughts and feelings
  • Maintain as normal a schedule as possible and structure your time to keep busy
  • Don’t make any major life decisions
  • Eat healthy meals and avoid drugs and alcohol

What you can do to help others

  • Listen, don’t judge
  • Accept that they will need space and time
  • Offer to lend a hand with everyday tasks
  • Don’t respond to their statements with, “You’re lucky...” - this will not console them
  • Reassure them that they are safe
  • Don’t take their anger or other negative feelings personally
  • Help people foster their personal resilience
  • If you feel that someone needs more help than you or their support network can provide, urge them to seek professional counselling
  • Counsellors on campus can provide Critical Incident stress debriefing, if further counselling is required


It is important to be respectful and confidential of other people's private information at all times, and you should not share information unnecessarily. If you are concerned about the health or well-being of a person however, it is appropriate to contact Health & Counselling Services or SFU Security or to escalate your concern to your supervisor.