Psychological debriefing for preventing post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

This review concerns the efficacy of single session psychological "debriefing" in reducing psychological distress and preventing the development of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after traumatic events. Psychological debriefing is either equivalent to, or worse than, control or educational interventions in preventing or reducing the severity of PTSD, depression, anxiety and general psychological morbidity. There is some suggestion that it may increase the risk of PTSD and depression. The routine use of single session debriefing given to non selected trauma victims is not supported. No evidence has been found that this procedure is effective.

Authors' conclusions: 

There is no evidence that single session individual psychological debriefing is a useful treatment for the prevention of post traumatic stress disorder after traumatic incidents. Compulsory debriefing of victims of trauma should cease. A more appropriate response could involve a 'screen and treat' model (NICE 2005).

Read the full abstract...

Over approximately the last fifteen years, early psychological interventions, such as psychological 'debriefing', have been increasingly used following psychological trauma. Whilst this intervention has become popular and its use has spread to several settings, empirical evidence for its efficacy is noticeably lacking. This is the third update of a review of single session psychological "debriefing", first having been undertaken in 1997.


To assess the effectiveness of brief psychological debriefing for the management of psychological distress after trauma, and the prevention of post traumatic stress disorder.

Search strategy: 

Electronic searching of MEDLINE, EMBASE, PsychLit, PILOTS, Biosis, Pascal, Occ.Safety and Health,SOCIOFILE, CINAHL, PSYCINFO, PSYNDEX, SIGLE, LILACS, CCTR, CINAHL, NRR, Hand search of Journal of Traumatic Stress. Contact with leading researchers.

Selection criteria: 

The focus of RCTs was on persons recently (one month or less) exposed to a traumatic event. The intervention consisted of a single session only, and involved some form of emotional processing/ventilation, by encouraging recollection/reworking of the traumatic event, accompanied by normalisation of emotional reaction to the event.

Data collection and analysis: 

15 trials fulfilled the inclusion criteria. Methodological quality was variable, but the majority of trials scored poorly. Data from 6 trials could not be included the meta-analyses. These trials are summarised in the text.

Main results: 

Single session individual debriefing did not prevent the onset of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) nor reduce psychological distress, compared to control. At one year, one trial reported a significantly increased risk of PTSD in those receiving debriefing (OR 2.51 (95% CI 1.24 to 5.09). Those receiving the intervention reported no reduction in PTSD severity at 1-4 months (SMD 0.11 (95%CI 0.10 to 0.32)), 6-13 months (SMD 0.26 (95%CI 0.01 to 0.50)), or 3 years (SMD 0.17 (95%CI -0.34 to 0.67)). There was also no evidence that debriefing reduced general psychological morbidity, depression or anxiety, or that it was superior to an educational intervention.