Critical Incidents

by Jeanne Jensma, Ph.D.

“Critical incidents” are unexpected and deeply frightening experiences—like a bad car accident, being robbed at gunpoint (or knife-point!), rape, mob violence or war, contracting a serious illness that brings a strong sense of imminent death, a plane crash, or being captured and held hostage. These are just some of the many critical incidents to which missionaries are vulnerable. Missionaries are approximately 9 times as likely as the average North American to experience a critical incident during any given year!

Some people come through these incidents without long-term impact. But for about one third, there are frequent and intense flashbacks or nightmares, sometimes for years or even for the rest of one’s life. In WWI, such a devastating psychological aftermath of war was called “battle fatigue.” In WWII it was called “shell shock.” Today it is called “post-traumatic stress” (but the term “post-traumatic stress” is not limited to war).

It is wise for anyone who has experienced a critical incident to be debriefed by trained personnel as soon as possible. There are numerous professionals trained to do this, some of whom are available to travel to the location on short notice. (ALONGSIDE personnel are sometimes available to travel to the site of a critical incident, depending on prior commitments.)

Many mission boards also have several “peer debriefers” who have been trained to assist in critical incident stress debriefing. For people who continue to experience flashbacks or nightmares even after a debriefing, it is important to seek short-term counseling by a professional trained to deal with psychological trauma. Pastors also encounter critical incidents at times—not as often as missionaries, perhaps, but still devastating. ALONGSIDE has the privilege of ministering to numerous mission-aries and pastors each year following various critical incidents.