When we think of first aid, we typically think of the kind of aid administered to someone when they’ve experienced a scrape or bruise, requiring use of a bandage or some other aid to help the wound begin to heal.
But what do people think of when they hear the term, “psychological first aid”? I imagine it’s a foreign concept for most people — that we could provide some sort of psychological help to someone in need. Today, on World Mental Health Day, it’s important to better understand this concept as it catches on with people around the world.
What is psychological first aid?
Psychological first aid (PFA) is mental health assistance provided to someone in emotional or psychological need after a traumatic, usually life-threatening event. PFA offers practical care and support of a person’s immediate, short-term needs — things such as shelter, food, and safety (or a feeling of security). People trained in PFA are taught to listen and to comfort the person in need, and to help connect them directly to the kinds of services they need in order to survive and feel safe.
The primary purpose of psychological first aid to help a person feel safe, ensure their basic needs are being cared for (such as being clothed, fed, and with shelter), and comforting them, letting them know that it is going to be okay. When a person doesn’t have these basic needs met, they can’t even begin to process the trauma that is affecting them. PFA never judges or pressures people into talking.
Who can administer psychological first aid?
In short, anyone who is trained can administer psychological first aid (PFA). PFA is not a professional or therapeutic intervention carried out by trained professionals. Rather, it is a peer intervention taught to people who are specially trained to administer it. These kinds of people might include ordinary folks, teachers, and first responders (such as police, EMTs, or firefighters).
When is psychological first aid administered?
It is typically and increasingly administered immediately following traumatic events that occur in a community. Those events might include a natural disaster, a terrorist attack, or some other kind of event that displaces people from their community. It can also include a person who was just robbed, sexually assaulted, or had a life-threatening accident. It can be administered to anyone where there is a chance there was a significant psychological or emotional impact on the person.
What is the rationale behind psychological first aid?
It is believed that PFA can help people by making them feel hopeful and supported by another caring human being. It gives them access to the kind of support they don’t traditionally receive after a traumatic event — psychological and emotional support. Such support can help reinforce a person’s sense of control, which is usually lost after an event where a person was powerless to stop or alter.
Helping Someone with PFA
- Try to find a quiet place to talk and minimize outside distractions.
- Stay near the person but keep an appropriate distance depending on their age, gender and culture.
- Let them know you hear what they are saying; for example, nod your head and stay attentive
- Be patient and calm.
- Provide factual information IF you have it. Be honest about what you know and what you don’t know. “I don’t know but I will try to find out about that for you.”
- Give information in a way the person can understand – keep it simple.
- Acknowledge how they are feeling, and any losses or important events they share with you, such as loss of home or death of a loved one. “I’m so sorry…”
- Respect privacy. Keep the person’s story confidential, especially when they disclose very private events.
- Acknowledge the person’s strengths and how they have helped themselves.
- Be honest and trustworthy.
- Respect a person’s right to make their own decisions.
- Be aware of and set aside your own biases and prejudices.
- Make it clear to people that even if they refuse help now, they can still access help in the future.
- Respect privacy and keep the person’s story confidential, as appropriate.
- Behave appropriately according to the person’s culture, age and gender.
Things to Avoid with PFA
- Don’t pressure someone to tell their story.
- Don’t interrupt or rush someone’s story.
- Don’t give your opinions of the person’s situation, just listen.
- Don’t touch the person if you’re not sure it is appropriate to do so.
- Don’t judge what they have or haven’t done, or how they are feeling. Don’t say…”You shouldn’t feel that way.” or “You should feel lucky you survived.”
- Don’t exploit your relationship as a helper.
- Don’t ask the person for any money or favor for helping them.
- Don’t exaggerate your skills.
- Don’t force help on people, and don’t be intrusive or pushy.
- Don’t share the person’s story with others.
- Don’t make up things you don’t know, or make false promises or give false information.
- Don’t use too technical terms.
- Don’t tell them someone else’s story.
- Don’t talk about your own troubles.
- Don’t feel you have to try to solve all the person’s problems for them.
- Don’t take away the person’s strength and sense of being able to care for themselves.
Learn More About PFA
This is just a basic primer on psychological first aid. If you want to learn more about PFA, please visit the World Health Organization’s World Mental Health Day resource, which has further information about this and related topics.
This article was based upon information provided by the World Health Organization, for which we are grateful.