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Looking for a Way to Support Mental Health in Your Community?

Kelsey Tyler

It’s easy to feel discouraged and powerless when every day seems to impart a fresh sense of doom and gloom. Maybe you live in an area where a lot of people have been directly affected by the pandemic or a natural disaster. Or perhaps you’re watching it all play out on the news or social media. In either case, you might be looking for a way to help — like, actually help.

Donating to front-line organizations and food banks, buying gift certificates to local restaurants and running errands for high-risk neighbors are some of the more commonly mentioned ways to be there for your community right now. Another, lesser-known way to lend support and compassion to people in crisis is to become a trained volunteer in psychological first aid.

Developed by the National Child Traumatic Stress Network and funded by governmental organizations like the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the Center for Mental Health Services, psychological first aid training teaches people principles for providing mental support during a disaster response. A PFA volunteer doesn’t take the place of a therapist, psychiatrist or other type of licensed healthcare provider. Instead, they supplement mental healthcare by supporting a person in crisis until professionals arrive. 

Tamar Mendelson, a professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, says volunteers typically practice psychological first aid in the immediate aftermath of a large-scale traumatic event, like a hurricane or a terrorist attack. Many disaster relief workers, such as those with the Red Cross, learn psychological first aid so they can help victims more comprehensively. But anyone can take the six-hour online training course required to become a PFA volunteer.   

“The idea is to have people trained who can go into a traumatic situation and interact with people in a way that reduces their initial distress and promotes positive coping skills in the short- and long-term,” says Mendelson.

For example, say you live in California or Oregon, where wildfires have displaced people from their homes. With PFA training, you could opt to volunteer at a shelter or even show up at a disaster scene to offer short-term emotional support to someone who just lost their house. The end goal is to identify distress and reduce its long-term effects, according to Mendelson.

David J. Romano, a licensed psychologist at the Orlando Institute for Psychology and Education, compares psychological first aid to its medical counterpart. The goal of medical first aid is to prevent the patient’s injury or condition from worsening until they receive medical attention, and PFA is similar. The training provides tools to help with emotional or mental “injuries” in an emergency-type scenario — but instead of band-aids and medical gauze, a PFA volunteer comes equipped with comforting words, a listening ear and perhaps a referral to a therapist or social worker, in order to help prevent acute stress from becoming long-term trauma, or post-traumatic stress disorder. 

PFA training is built on a set of eight core actions that help volunteers identify and interact with a person in distress. They include providing physical comfort, acting with compassion, and connecting survivors with loved ones or community resources. The gist, according to Stephanie Vitanza, a clinical psychologist in Scottsdale, Arizona, is to be kind, caring and calming — principles you can apply pretty much any time someone is struggling. 

“The framework is based on creating a connection so they can intervene with others in a crisis, whether at a school, in a triage area or even in a business setting,” she says.

Practically, there’s no one way to furnish psychological first aid. Emotional injuries don’t always require hands-on care, but that doesn’t mean PFA volunteers don’t offer concrete support. Sometimes, the best thing a PFA volunteer can do for a shell-shocked trauma victim is hand them a blanket or a bottle of water. Other times, the situation calls for a volunteer just to be present, listen and offer words of reassurance. 

There are times, of course, when a person’s response to a disaster will be outside of a volunteer’s scope ― such as if someone threatens to hurt themselves or others. But as a PFA volunteer, you’ll know how to connect the survivor with the appropriate professional help and comfort them until it’s available. Psychological first aid training teaches volunteers about the effects of stress and trauma so they can understand which forms of support are most effective, and when.

Psychological first aid isn’t counseling or trauma treatment — it’s best to leave those things to licensed clinicians. But the “peer support” aspect is part of what makes it so effective. Mendelson says PFA works best when volunteers are comfortable and familiar with the target population — it can be profoundly comforting to have an empathetic friend around when you’re going through something scary. 

And according to Vitanza, this kind of peer-to-peer support is an evidence-based approach for reducing the long-term effects of trauma. “There’s tons of research that support from a person at your same level can be effective in ameliorating short-term negative responses,” she says.

While psychological first aid was created to help survivors in the aftermath of disasters, Romano says the principles carry over to any scenario where someone is going through something difficult. Maybe you’ll apply them in a conversation with a loved one reeling from a recent job loss, or to your six-year-old’s frustrations with distance learning. By learning more about how stress and trauma can affect people in short-and long-term ways, you’ll become a better friend, family member or community member. “With psychological first aid, you really learn how to listen — how to be there with someone,” says Romano.

If you or someone you know is experiencing distress from a disaster, you can talk to a trained crisis counselor via the SAMHSA Disaster Distress Hotline at 1-800-985-5990.

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