Emergency-Response Psychologist: “People in distress have various resources available to them”

Helena Casazza (Photo: Aurélie Despont) Helena Casazza (Photo: Aurélie Despont)

When someone’s life is turned upside down, the emergency-response psychologist Helena Casazza is called in as quickly as possible to provide support.

After the terrorist attacks in Brussels, Nice and Berlin in 2016, many trauma victims received psychological support. In such situations, emergency-response psychologists like Helena Casazza from Geneva work alongside the police to take care of witnesses, victims and their relatives. “At this point our society – which is becoming increasingly individualistic – says to these people “we won’t abandon you, we’re here to help and support you,”” explained the head of the Geneva Association of Psychologists (GAP)/police unit. The involvement of emergency-response psychologists is not restricted to major incidents which are fortunately rare in Switzerland. The Geneva unit was called in 120 times in 2016 to support victims, relatives and witnesses suffering the impact of assaults, robberies or disturbing deaths, such as suicide, drowning or car accidents.

In Switzerland, emergency-response psychology is not a full-time career. Professionals tend to practise it as a secondary discipline. “It’s extremely demanding psychologically,” revealed Helena Casazza. “And then from an ethical perspective, we cannot hope somebody is traumatised in order to earn money.” Under the system in Geneva, psychologists are permanently on standby on a voluntary basis. They are only paid if called upon and the incident takes place within the cantonal boundaries. Following the terrorist attacks in neighbouring countries in 2016, the members of the GAP-police unit volunteered to meet Geneva residents who were at the scene and required psychological support upon their return. “We still have work to do to ensure such cases are also dealt with,” explained the emergency-response psychologist. 

Managing disaster situations

“I’ve always known that I wanted to be an emergency-response psychologist,” indicated Helena Casazza. From the second year of her psychology degree course at the University of Geneva, the young woman therefore took an internship with “La Main Tendue”, the emergency number 143. “My job was to listen to people in distress and to try to help resolve their problems. Not all cases required urgent action but we also had to deal with critical situations from time to time.” She then worked for 147, the children’s hotline. After graduation she did a motivational semester internship with the Geneva Red Cross and then immediately completed training in emergency-response psychology with the “Formation des associations romandes et tessinoises de psychologues” (FARP), a training body run by psychology associations in French-speaking Switzerland and Ticino. She joined the GAP-police unit in 2007 but also worked in the field of professional integration and coaching for various associations.

A vacancy then became available with the cantonal police force in Geneva. The young psychologist, who is now 35, saw an opportunity to combine her two roles. Since January 2013, Helena Casazza has focused on training in police psychology and provides recruitment, coaching and support services for the Geneva police force. She is also head of the GAP-police unit. As well as managing staff and coordinating and dealing with cases, she also draws up action plans and ensures provisions are in place to deal with large-scale incidents, such as a disaster situation affecting Switzerland. “We’ve seen what our neighbouring countries have been through. We’ve still got a long way to go and can learn from what has happened.” Skilled in providing support, the psychologists can rely on the structures in place within the police force to re-establish order in chaotic situations where hundreds, if not thousands, of people have to be dealt with.” She keeps in touch with colleagues from other cantons through the “Collège romand de psychologie d’urgence” (CRPU) - (society of emergency-response psychology in French-speaking Switzerland) - and the “Réseau national d’aide psychologique d’urgence” (RNAPU) - (the national network of emergency-response psychology).

In Geneva, the emergency-response unit is made up of around 15 psychologists on standby duty who ensure that every day of the year is covered around the clock. “We always try to ensure two lines are available. The on-call shifts are from midnight to midday, from midday to 6.00 p.m. and then from 6.00 p.m. to midnight. We must have our own transport, be reachable by telephone and be able to arrive on site in half an hour.”

Helping people come to terms with reality

Helena Casazza recently dealt with a serious traffic accident. Having evaluated the situation on site based on a checklist, the police decided to call in the psychological support unit on that particular evening. On stand-by duty, the emergency-response psychologist received a call from headquarters outlining the initial details. Before setting off she telephoned the police officers at the scene to gain a fuller understanding of the situation and to establish who would need support. “There is sometimes no need to attend the scene,” pointed out Helena Casazza. Her initial evaluation in this case was that the driver at fault and perhaps two other witnesses of the accident would require attention.

When she arrived at the scene, her first task was to ensure the victims no longer felt in danger. “I don’t provide support on the roadside,” she explained. The emergency-response psychologist then asks whether or not the person would like her to stay. “We work on the assumption that a person has the capacity and resourcefulness to deal with the situation themselves,” remarked the psychologist. “We want them to regain all their faculties in order to cope. We must not act as a crutch.”

Their help is usually welcome and emergency-response psychologists are there to provide support and deal with all issues that may arise. The main priority is to help the person come to terms with what has happened and get them out of a state of shock. “We’re also there to take care of their basic needs until they are no longer alone.” The psychologist takes the opportunity to explain to victims the natural reactions that can occur following a traumatic incident, such as sleeping disorders, irritability and a lack of appetite etc. These symptoms nevertheless generally subside over time. “We then call the person over the next few days to assess the situation and to see how they are.” The emergency-response psychologist offers to provide a debriefing if necessary after which a third meeting may take place if need be. This is the point where the support provided free-of-charge by the GAP-police unit ends. If trauma victims require further treatment, they are referred to a psychotherapist who follows up the case.

Remaining sharp

“I’ve learned a great deal through this type of situation,” observed Helena Casazza. “It reminds me that we’re all mortal and need to make the most of each day. It gives me more zest for life.” Not everyone is cut out for this profession which requires tremendous flexibility, the ability to cope with stress, empathy and great psychological stability. “Some situations affect us deeply which is why it’s important to know your limits.” What’s the greatest challenge? For Helena Casazza, it’s remaining sharp but also the whirlwind transition from enjoying time with the family to dealing with people in distress. “Seeing somebody’s life turned upside down is far from easy. But it’s OK once I get there. Work takes over.” All the members of the GAP-police unit pull together and often offer their support to colleagues who have experienced difficult situations.

While the psychological support unit in Geneva has lots of experienced professionals who have been practising for many years, it is always on the lookout for new recruits. What are the requirements? Completion of the first module in emergency-response psychology at the “FARP”. Candidates can then apply for an internship during which they will assist an experienced psychologist on various assignments until they feel ready to work independently. “It’s a highly specialised job but also very rewarding. We share intimate moments with people in distress who also demonstrate great strength and resourcefulness,” summed up Helena Casazza. “It’s a real lesson in life.”

Name: Helena Casazza
Profession: Psychologist qualified in emergency-response psychology
Attributes: Flexibility, empathy, strong presence, interpersonal skills, ability to cope with stress, psychological stability