When terrible things happen in our communities, we can reach out a helping hand to those who are affected. Perhaps you find yourself at the scene of an accident where people are hurt. Perhaps you are a health-care worker or teacher talking with someone from your community who has just witnessed the violent death of a loved one. Perhaps you are called upon as a staff member in a disaster or volunteer to help asylum seekers who have recently arrived in your community. Learning the basic principles of psychological first aid will help you to provide support to people who are very distressed, and, importantly, to know what not to say.
The theme of this year’s World Mental Health Day, observed on 10 October, covers “psychological first aid”. Efforts in support of the day will focus on basic pragmatic psychological support by people who find themselves in a helping role whether they are health staff, teachers, firemen, community workers, or police officers.
Despite its name, psychological first aid covers both psychological and social support. Just like general health care never consists of physical first aid alone, similarly no mental health care system should consist of psychological first aid alone. Indeed, the investment in psychological first aid is part of a longer-term effort to ensure that anyone in acute distress due to a crisis is able to receive basic support, and that those who need more than psychological first aid will receive additional advanced support from health, mental health and social services.
What is Psychological First Aid?
When terrible things happen, we want to reach out a helping hand to those who have been affected. Psychological First Aid (PFA) is a humane, supportive and practical response to people suffering exposure to serious stressors and who may need support.
It is an approach to help people recover by responding to their basic needs and showing them concern and care, in a way that respects their wishes, culture, dignity and capabilities.
What does PFA involve?
giving non-intrusive, practical care and support assessing people’s needs and concerns helping people address basic needs (food, water) listening, but not pressuring, people to talk comforting people and helping them to feel calm helping people connect to information, services and social support protecting people from further harm.
Who can offer PFA?
Perhaps you are called upon as a staff member or volunteer to help in a major disaster, or you find yourself at the scene of an accident where people are hurt. You may be a health worker helping someone who has been the victim of violence, or you may be a teacher, fire-fighter, police officer or emergency medical technician. Learning about PFA will help you to know the most supportive things to say and do for people who are very distressed. It will also give you information on how to approach a new situation safely for yourself and others, and not to cause harm by your actions.
Who can benefit from PFA?
Although many people cope well enough in crisis situations, others may feel overwhelmed, confused, fearful, sad, angry or numb. PFA may be helpful for people who feel emotionally distressed after a crisis event. However, some people may need specialized help, such as those in need of emergency medical care or with very serious emotional reactions such as being disoriented or unable to care for them-selves. If you are providing PFA, know your limits! If possible, refer people in need of specialized help, to, for example, a health-care professional or psychologist.
More information available here: www.who.int