The recent tragedy in Aurora, Colorado was an extreme act of senseless violence that truly shook our nation. When traumatic events like these take place, a ripple of grief, shock and fear spreads to individuals who are both directly and indirectly impacted. For those of us who live far from Aurora, reactions range from a deep sadness we feel for the victims and their families to new-felt tensions when entering a movie theater. Yet, for those who’ve been more closely affected—friends and family of victims, witnesses, law enforcement, medical personnel, and other first responders—the trauma can have an impact on a deep psychological level.
Psychological First Aid (PFA) is an integral approach to helping victims living in the wake of a traumatic event such as an open act of violence or terror, a natural disaster, a public health emergency, a frightening accident, or even a personal crisis. As the Minnesota Department of Health states, “Emotional distress is not always as visible as physical injury, but it is just as painful and debilitating.” PFA is designed to help people cope with the stress, shock, confusion, fear, feelings of hopelessness, grief, anger, guilt and withdrawal that arise when a catastrophe has occurred.
This state of shock in the wake of tragedy not only impacts people’s long-term psychological stability, but their short term well-being. They may start replaying horrid scenes in their heads or scaring themselves over potential threats and unlikely dangers. Getting people the help they need to regain a sense of safety and security after a shocking event is essential. PFA gives us some very effective tools in helping those who have been traumatized to cope through a crisis and move into the future.
Knowing the steps of PFA is beneficial to anyone who might experience a crisis in their lifetime. It does not require a professional to carry out the steps of care. The process can be learned and employed by anyone who is able make direct contact with individuals affected by crisis. The earlier you can assist someone in gaining a sense of calm and meeting their immediate needs, the better they can cope throughout their state of trauma. These methods may not only be helpful to victims directly impacted by the shooting in Colorado, but to the general population who may at one point or another find themselves in a traumatic scenario. Everyone reacts differently to trauma. By remaining attuned to those who may be most affected, we can employ the following steps to ensure these people optimum care:
When you are using Psychological First Aid, there are several methods you should avoid—what The New York City Department of Health and and Mental Hygiene calls, “Psychological First Aid Don’ts.” These include:
You can see a full list of the do’s and don’ts of Psychological First Aid here. You can also participate in an online training course in Psychological First Aid held by the National Child Traumatic Stress Network here.
There is no simple way, no straight-forward list of do’s and don'ts, to dispel the pain of the people going through real tragedy. However, Psychological First Aid is one of the most effective, immediate ways to help fellow human beings through the initial stage of crisis. The process is intended to lead to post-traumatic growth instead of post-traumatic stress disorder. The hope is that one day, the people impacted may gain a sense of inner peace, calm and hope, shifting this tragedy from a present encounter to a part of their past.