Every person has strengths and abilities to help them cope with life challenges. But in a crisis situation, it’s normal for someone to need extra help. That’s where psychological first aid comes in.
What is most helpful to the long-term recovery of people who have experienced a crisis is having access to the social, physical and emotional support that they need. Providing psychological first aid in the immediate aftermath of a crisis can help someone cope with their initial distress, and help them regain a sense of control by connecting them with the information, additional support and services they may need.
You do not have to be a mental health professional to offer psychological first aid. Anyone can be trained to provide this kind of support. The information below—drawn from the field guide on providing psychological first aid written by staff at the World Health Organization, the War Trauma Foundation and World Vision International—can help you support others who have experienced a crisis.
People who have experienced a crisis or emergency may feel distressed or overwhelmed, and may benefit from help with basic needs such as food, water, health services and information.
To help someone in distress feel more safe and secure, you should remain calm and show understanding and respect. You can help comfort and calm someone who has experienced a crisis by asking about their needs and concerns, and by helping to address those things. Regardless of who initiates the conversation, it’s important to listen supportively—and to never pressure a person in distress to talk.
How to listen supportively to someone in distress
- Be calm and patient, and show understanding
- Do not pressure somebody to talk to you or ask them to tell you what happened—ask about their needs and concerns
- Allow for silence
When someone is talking about a distressing event they’ve experienced, 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.”
Encourage people to use their own positive coping strategies. This will help them feel stronger and regain a sense of control.
How to encourage positive coping
- Acknowledge the person’s strengths and how they already have helped themselves
- Ask the person to consider how they coped with difficult situations in the past, and explore some more positive coping strategies they could try when they feel overwhelmed again
- Positive coping strategies include engaging in activities that normally help them to relax, discussing problems with family or trusted friends, getting enough sleep, eating healthily and drinking enough water
People who have experienced crisis or emergencies may benefit from being connected with information, services and social supports.
How to help people to connect with needed services and support
- Provide factual information, in a way that the person can understand
- Help people identify supports in their life, such as friends or family
- Help people call or contact friends and relatives so they can get support
- Learn as much as you can about the situation and conduct a mapping of available services
- Learn the process for making referrals to support service
Recognize who may need more immediate advanced support.
Psychological first aid is not professional counseling. There are people who will need additional support beyond basic psychological first aid, including:
- People who are so upset they cannot care for themselves or their children
- People who may hurt themselves
- People who may hurt others
- People who are extremely upset, who seem to be in shock or who are unable to respond
- Children who are unaccompanied by an adult
Are you prepared to support people who have been exposed to a crisis?
To help first responders, service providers and others who may interact with people affected by a crisis, International Medical Corps has developed the Principles of Psychological First Aid—a free, two-hour online training course covering such topics as supportive listening, normal stress responses, positive coping mechanisms and the importance of linking people to support. It also emphasizes the importance of self-care for those who are providing support to people in stressful situations.
In this unique, scenario-based training session, you’ll be taken through a humanitarian emergency and engage in decision-making on how best to support members of the affected community.
You don’t have to be a mental health professional to provide psychological first aid during an emergency response. Whether you’re a first responder or just someone who wants to know more about how to help anyone dealing with difficult emotional issues, the Principles of Psychological First Aid course will provide you with the guidance you need to help those in need.