8 Ways to Help Others with Psychological First Aid

How to use PFA to help others through COVID-19, mass trauma, and disasters.

Posted Oct 27, 2020

Psychological First Aid is uniquely applicable to helping others through COVID-19, mass trauma, and disasters. Keep in mind Psychological First Aid is not psychotherapy. Rather, it is a short-term practical helping approach most natural helpers can master that is recommended for responding to mass traumas and disasters. Providing early assistance (e.g., within days or weeks following an event) may prevent or lessen the effects of post-traumatic stress. These objectives will need to be addressed in a flexible way, using strategies that meet the specific needs of disaster survivors. The amount of time spent on each goal will vary from person to person, and with different circumstances according to need.

Austin Kehmeier/Unsplash
Source: Austin Kehmeier/Unsplash

Basic Psychological First Aid Actions

Following is an overview of the basic actions taught in Psychological First Aid. Before attempting, please seek out proper training from a trusted instructor, such as through the National Child Traumatic Stress Network or a local nonprofit agency such as a chapter of the American Red Cross.

  • Contact and engagement - respond to contacts initiated by affected persons, or initiate contacts in a non-intrusive, compassionate, and helpful manner. This includes helping survivors consider coping options, identifying and acknowledging their coping strengths, and exploring the negative consequences of maladaptive coping.
  • Safety and comfort - enhance immediate and ongoing safety and provide physical and emotional comfort. Such as enhancing a sense of control over coping and adjustment and avoiding getting angry or violent.
  • Stabilization - calm and orient emotionally-overwhelmed and distraught survivors. This is done by recommending that survivors get adequate rest, diet, exercise. Engaging in positive distracting activities (sports, hobbies, reading) and trying to maintain a normal schedule to the extent possible are also helpful strategies.
  • Information gathering about current concerns - identify immediate needs and concerns, gather additional information, and tailor helping strategies accordingly. Encourage survivors to make conscious choices about how to cope. Survivors should also be informed to avoid using alcohol or drugs to cope and prevent withdrawing from activities.
  • Practical assistance - offer practical help to the survivor in order to address immediate needs and concerns. Some suggestions for implementation include helping survivors seek counseling, participate in a support group, or use relaxation methods (e.g., deep breathing).
  • Connection with social supports - help establish brief or ongoing contacts with primary support persons or other sources of support, including family members, friends, and community helping resources. Encourage survivors to talk with other trusted people in their life.
  • Information on coping - provide information (about stress reactions and coping) to reduce distress and promote adaptive functioning. Other ways you might help are: encouraging healthy coping skills used before the disaster whenever possible, generating ideas about coping strategies with limited resources after the disaster, and encouraging positive spiritual coping strategies.
  • Linkage with collaborative services - link survivors with needed services and inform them about available services that may be needed in the future. It can be helpful to provide them with list of resources and mental health agencies. Similarly, encourage survivors to develop a plan for seeking additional support and resources.

When to Use Psychological First Aid

The National Institute of Mental Health Task Force typically recommends Psychological First Aid for the first days and a couple of weeks following a trauma. However, we also have to recognize that sometimes people that we encounter even months after a trauma may still be in crisis. For example, when our team at the Humanitarian Disaster Institute helped in the Philippines after a typhoon several months after the event, there were still areas that no one had been able to reach physically because of the debris and damage. When those communities were encountered, it was similar to encountering a community in the immediate aftermath of a disaster despite the time lapse.