First Aid for the Mind and Soul

Immediately after a disaster, most rescue workers focus on providing physical first aid. They stop bleeding, wrap wounds and stabilize victims. But some responders are adding another component to the emergency response : psychological first aid. The hope is to reduce initial distress and to prevent long-term mental illness and trauma.

I went to a 4-hour class on this topic at the American Red Cross in Orlando. David Romano of Barry University led the session and talked about the physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual reactions people have after disasters.

Responders, even lay ones, can carry out the following steps in the immediate aftermath.

1)   Establish a human connection. 2)   Ask where the person would feel safe. 3)   Calm and orient the person. 4)   Meet the person’s immediate basic needs. 5)   Offer practical assistance and information.

The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene also give these “Don’ts.”

  • Don’t force people to share their stories.
  • Don’t give simple reassurances, such as “Everything will be all right,” or “At least you survived,” or “I know how you feel.”

Psychological first aid helps people cope with the stress, shock, confusion and fear that arise after a catastrophe. Disaster victims can have many early responses to stress. They may be physical, like fatigue and agitation. Or they may be behavioral, like crying spells and angry outbursts. They may be psychological, like confusion and forgetfulness, or even spiritual, like a loss of faith.

According to the National Center for PTSD, psychological first aid doesn’t assume that all disaster survivors will develop severe mental health problems or long-term difficulties in recovery. But for those who are most vulnerable, “the process is intended to lead to post-traumatic growth instead of post-traumatic stress disorder,” according to Lisa Firestone on the Huffington Post. []