Psychological First Aid and Responding to Victims

After attending an amazing training hosted in partnership with NERT and SFCARD’s own Susan Schmitz to train trainers on psychological first aid, our community partners were refocused on this vital skill that people from all backgrounds could greatly benefit from. Susan Schmitz answered some of our questions regarding pyschological first aid and her background.

  1. Can you tell us what Psychological First Aid is?

During a disaster, the psychological issues resulting from trauma and distress can be just as alarming as physical injuries. In addition, the effects may not be seen immediately and may become long lasting. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network and the US Department of Veterans Affairs, National Center for PTSD created a nationally recognized Psychological First Aid (PFA) model to offer an immediate intervention and attempt to minimize the long-term mental health impacts. Similar to medical first aid, PFA is a process for addressing immediate mental health needs. This evidenced informed approach teaches tools and techniques that can be applied by anyone to anyone after a disaster. It is intended to be used by all responders (professional and volunteer) and is the leading psychological intervention used by people without a clinical background.

  1. Where did you get the idea for doing psychological first aid training with NERT trainers?

I spent two years teaching SAFETY FUNCTION ACTION to first responders and public health employees throughout the state of Florida. This is a disaster behavioral health model developed by Dr. James Shultz, and, similar to PFA, is clinically informed and intended for everyone. Everywhere we went, the audience was eager to learn what to say to the survivors they would be working with following a disaster. It showed me that there are more disaster behavioral health options available than just PFA, and what it really impressed upon me, was that all first responders need this training. Therefore, it’s something about which I have continued to be passionate.

Luckily, while working at SF CARD, I had the opportunity to talk about this interest with Teri Dowling (SF DPH) and Erica Arteseros (SFFD – NERT). They too had wanted a mental health training for volunteer responders, and had been trying to find a way to get it. Together we decided to make this become a reality. SF DPH graciously funded SF CARD to create a PFA presentation and train the trainer training specifically tailored to NERT’s needs. Simultaneously, Dr. Elizabeth McMahon, private consultant and psychologist, was asked by a NERT volunteer to teach a disaster mental health training. This just emphasized that we were on the right track. Volunteers wanted this type of training! So, together Dr. McMahon and I set out to create a tailored NERT PFA model. Our final team included myself, Dr. McMahon, Erica Arteseros (SFFD NERT), Shea Baldez (SF CARD), and Teri Dowling (SF DPH).

  1. What resources did you use?

We utilized published resources, professional experience, and a NERT focus group to tailor PFA concepts to meet the needs of NERT volunteers. Some of those written references include:

  • National CERT psychological first aid (PFA) module
  • National Psychological First Aid manuals (general, nursing home staff, medical reserve corps)
  • American Red Cross psychological first aid training
  • State and county level disaster mental/behavioral/psychological health trainings

What we found while trying to apply national PFA Core Actions to NERT was that traditional PFA tools often focus on shelter or disaster service workers. This does not accurately apply to the experiences NERT volunteers (or first responders) will have during a disaster. Also, we received focus group feedback asking us to tailor our program even more to the needs of NERT volunteers. For example, include how to provide PFA during triage and focus on what volunteers could realistically do for survivors within their NERT roles. Ultimately, we created a PFA training that complements and adds to current PFA/disaster mental health best practices.

  1. What do students learn in this training?

The goals of the training are to:

  • Teach, model, and allow practice of culturally competent skills that can quickly and effectively be learned and applied.
  • Increase volunteer confidence and effectiveness in handling distressed teammates and community members.
  • Reduce risk of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms in volunteer responders and community members.

To do this we teach:

  • Self-Care before, during, and after activation
  • Psychological first aid skills
  • Connect and Direct in triage
  • Connect, Assess, and Direct outside of triage
  • How to manage specific reactions/situations
  1. Can you tell us where you got your passion for this topic?

I think my passion for disaster mental health stems a lot from personal experience. My family has survived two tornados and I’ve seen not only physical destruction, but also psychological resilience. Neighbors, family, friends, all come together to offer support. Usually people offer to help in tangible ways (cleaning, cooking, childcare), but what they’re also doing is helping survivors emotionally. Social support is something so powerful when dealing with a traumatic event and it’s something we often forget and overlook. Psychological First Aid, while providing tools and techniques is also, at its very basic level, reminding us how to be kind to others when they most need it. You don’t need to be a clinical psychologist to offer that kind of support, you just need a reminder of how this may look when times are stressful.

  1. What has the demand been like for this training? Are people interested? Do you think youth might be interested?

Demand is skyrocketing. We provided one NERT PFA Train the Trainer Training in SF and the class was full. SFFD is already looking for more funding so we can hold another one soon. The Human Services Agency, SFPD, SF DEM, and multiple nonprofit and faith based organizations are asking for more information on what PFA would look like in their agencies. SF CARD has provided a PFA training for residential care facilities staff (which is different from the NERT PFA model) and has added this to our roster of available trainings. In addition, Dr. McMahon and I provided a brief overview of what we have created at the Northern California CERT conference and found overwhelming interest. CERT teams from around the state are interested in bringing this to their teams and would like to see this model become incorporated with the National CERT training.

By Susan Schmitz

Want to learn more about NERT? Check them out online for free trainings in emergency preparedness.


Posted on September 1, 2015, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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