Helping People Recover From a Crisis By Using Psychological First Aid

In the wake of the recent tropical storms and hurricanes that have ravaged the Panhandle, many of us have friends and family members who have been adversely affected by a disaster. We often move quickly to meet their needs for water, health care, and shelter but fall short when it comes to focusing on their psychological needs.

Let’s face it: experiencing a disaster first hand is extremely stressful. Such overwhelming stress can make it difficult for people who are fearing for their lives, bringing up negative emotions like anxiety, anger, and hopelessness. It is hard to make decisions under the weight of these negative emotions, which affect memory and decision-making.

Disaster is not limited to storms, fires, and floods. The seemingly never-ending disaster of COVID-19 has wreaked havoc upon many families, not to mention the social unrest throughout our country. Stress levels for many people are at dangerous levels and their ability to cope adequately may be waning.

There is something you can do to help your family and loved ones understand and cope with their distress. Take a play out of the mental health professionals’ playbook and apply psychological first aid to help stabilize those who are dealing with calamity.

What is Psychological First Aid (PFA)?

Psychological First Aid (PFA) is a short-term strategy to psychologically stabilize people. Similar to CPR, which is used in the moment of crisis, it is designed to help people during peak stress by assessing and addressing their immediate concerns, but does not replace more traditional treatments.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), psychological first aid describes a humane, supportive response to a fellow human being who is suffering and who may need support. PFA involves the following themes:

  • providing practical care and support, which does not intrude;
  • assessing needs and concerns;
  • helping people to address basic needs (for example, food and water, information);
  • listening to people, but not pressuring them to talk;
  • comforting people and helping them to feel calm;
  • helping people connect to information, services, and social supports;
  • protecting people from further harm.

Also according to WHO, it is important to understand what psychological first aid is NOT:

  • It is not something that only professionals can do.
  • It is not professional counseling.
  • It is not “psychological debriefing” in that PFA does not necessarily involve a detailed discussion of the event that caused the distress.
  • It is not asking someone to analyze what happened to them or to put time and events in order.
  • Although PFA involves being available to listen to people’s stories, it is not about pressuring people to tell you their feelings and reactions to an event.

PFA involves factors that seem to be most helpful to a person’s long-term recovery:

  • feeling safe, connected to others, calm and hopeful;
  • having access to social, physical and emotional support; and
  • feeling able to help themselves, as individuals and communities.

Understanding Key Components to Psychological First Aid

While definitions of what comprises PFA may vary, there are at least five components that seem to be key to its methodology:

  1. Help people feel safe. In addition to encouraging those in crisis to take safety precautions, you may also need to provide tangible support like food and water. This will help to make those suffering feel less vulnerable.
  2. Create a sense of calm. Listen to people closely while they talk and help them to reframe the situation so they can begin to think of how they can move forward.
  3. Help people regain a sense of control and confidence. Often, people struggle with feelings of helplessness during and after a crisis. So, help them with problem-solving and allow them to determine what they need to cope, which will help to empower those in crisis.
  4. Encourage social connection. After disasters, victims often feel isolated and alone. Find creative ways to reach out and connect. The key is to engage with them and others directly.
  5. Generate and inspire hope. Hope is so vital to psychological recovery. Put things into perspective using historical examples of more dire situations than what is currently being experienced and convey how resilient we as humans are.

Using psychological first aid as an intervention for those who are suffering from a disaster can help people realize they still have agency and can make a huge difference to them.

If you would like to learn more about PFA, check out this field guide distributed by the World Health Organization (EnglishSpanishFrench). To become certified in PFA, you can take a free class offered by Johns Hopkins University.

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