A Brief (But Helpful) Guide to Psychological First Aid

How To Help In A Crisis: A Brief Guide to Psychological First Aid

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Have you ever wondered how you would react in a major crisis? What if something terrible happened to someone you loved, and all eyes were on you to provide emotional support and care?

Would you know what to do?

If the Coronavirus Pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that disaster can and will strike at any time. But what do you do when you are the one who has to respond to a crisis?

Fortunately, you can learn how by getting trained in Psychological First Aid. In this post, I’ll tell you how to do it for free.

A Brief (But Helpful) Guide to Psychological First Aid
A Brief Guide to Psychological First Aid

What Is Psychological First Aid?

Psychological First Aid (PFA) is an evidence-informed approach built on the concept of human resilience. PFA aims to reduce stress symptoms and assist in a healthy recovery following a traumatic event, natural disaster, public health emergency, or even a personal crisis.

In 2006, The National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (NCPTSD), a division of the US Department of Veterans Affairs, developed Psychological First Aid (PFA) to assist children, adults, and families in the aftermath of both natural and man-made disasters, including mass-shootings and terrorism.

Police, firemen, paramedics, and other first responders are trained in it, and it was developed for non-mental health professionals to use, so there’s no reason the average person can’t use it, too.

Why You Should Learn Psychological First Aid

We are all going to be involved in a crisis at some point. The sheer volume of violence and mayhem in this country makes it a mathematical certainty. Every year, suicides alone account for fatalities 15 times greater than those we suffered on 9/11. COVID-19, of course, has made matters much worse.

Psychological First Aid is something we can all learn. You can learn the basics in about six hours. It is an ingenious, effective, and simple set of interventions to use in a crisis.

How to give psychological first aid. Courtesy, YouTube.

What is Psychological First Aid Used For?

Psychological First Aid was designed for major disasters, but it’s useful in any situation where you’d find yourself helping a person in crisis. Keep in mind, a crisis is not so much an event, but a person’s reaction to it. Thus, the definition of “crisis” is subjective.

A crisis is also not confined to any one set of parameters. Obvious ones include school shootings — or Church shootings, or concert shootings, or baseball field shootings, because, America — natural disasters like hurricanes and tornadoes, and acts of domestic and foreign terrorism.

But “lesser” disasters happen every few seconds (e.g., car crashes, untimely deaths, violent crime, and suicide). Then you have personal crises, such as job loss, extended illness, or a bad breakup. Psychological first aid can be used with all of these.

While there are core components and steps to Psychological First Aid, mostly it has to do with being a decent human being to other human beings who need help. If you can listen and demonstrate empathy, you can perform Psychological First Aid.

While Physical First Aid is used to reduce physical discomfort due to a bodily injury, Psychological First Aid is a strategy to reduce the painful range of emotions and responses experienced by people exposed to high stress.

Minnesota Dept. of Public Health

What Psychological First Aid Is Not

Psychological First Aid is designed with simplicity and ease of use in mind. With that in mind, let’s discuss first what it isn’t.

It isn’t counseling. It isn’t a self-assessment. It doesn’t require you to obtain details of the traumatic event, nor does it involve diagnosis or labels or complex interventions.

It’s not something only professionals can use, and not everyone involved in trauma will actually need it. And it doesn’t require extensive training, special skills, or advanced degrees. In short, it is based on skills most people already possess.

The Minnesota Department of Public Health offers a wonderful summary of it on their website. There’s even an app you can download for both Android and iPhone.

Who Can Psychological First Aid Be Used On?

Psychological First Aid is designed to help anyone — kids, adults, parents, senior citizens, even entire communities that have suffered a traumatic incident, as well as first responders and volunteers.

It is also, by extension, remarkably effective for friends and family members dealing with every-day crises.

When we experience trauma, be it a bad breakup or a car bomb, a number of common stress reactions can occur. Grief. Terror. Shock. Panic. Disbelief. Confusion. Physical pain. Insomnia. Anxiety. Social isolation. Guilt.

Which ones we experience depend on who we are and what we have just experienced. There’s no right or wrong feeling, nor can you predict which ones a person will experience.

The goal of Psychological First Aid is to tend to these emotional wounds by providing safety, comfort, understanding, and hope.

The World Health Organization produced an extensive handbook on how to do this, and other guides are readily available on the Internet, like this one, produced by the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.

There are even a few free trainings online, like The National Child Traumatic Stress Network’s 6-hour online training course. It’s endorsed by the American Psychological Association. You can access it here.

Final Thoughts

Psychological First Aid has its merits when it comes to helping our friends and loved ones through the more mundane and routine crises that define us all. It is easy to use, the training is free and readily available, and the practical applications are legion.

Perhaps the key to large, systemic change in this world begins with how we help our fellow man. If more of us were willing to do this, maybe the larger problems we face as a country would begin to take care of themselves.

If you feel like you might be the one in need of help, you can visit Psychology Today and search for a list of qualified therapists in your area.

If you prefer online counseling, I recommend BetterHelp. My readers enjoy a 10 discount when you sign up through that link.

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About The Author
Randy Withers, LCMHC
Randy Withers, LCMHC is a Board-Certified and Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor at a private practice in North Carolina where he specializes in co-occurring disorders. He has master’s degrees in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Lenoir-Rhyne University and Education from Florida State University, and is the managing editor of Blunt Therapy. He writes about mental health, therapy, and addictions. In his spare time, you can find him watching reruns of Star Trek: TNG with his dog. Connect with him on LinkedIn.
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