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Psychological First Aid

Posted on Monday, 10 October 2016, in Mental Health, Treatments & Therapy

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World Mental Health Day on the 10th October, is an annual event to raise awareness of mental health issues around the world. The theme for 2016 is Psychological First Aid and the ways in which people can provide support to those experiencing distress. 

This is something that is particularly pertinent in an age where so many humans are experiencing extreme distress in war-torn areas around the world.  But Psychological First Aid isn’t just something to be used in an extreme crisis, and here Dr Mary Cawley, Psychologist and Clinical Partner Glasgow discusses how we can all give Psychological First Aid to those around us.


What is Psychological First Aid?

Psychological first aid is a supportive approach often used in response to humanitarian crises, natural disasters or major incidents such as terrorism. It does not involve diagnosing, debriefing or counselling someone who has experienced a distressing event. Psychological first aid has been described as a “humane, supportive response to a fellow human being who is suffering and who may need support.” [1] You do not need to be a professional to support someone who is distressed due to a recent event, in fact it is something we can all do, everyday.


Who does Psychological First Aid help?

We can use World Mental Health Day as an opportunity to think about those in our lives who are experiencing distress due to a recent crisis and how we might use psychological first aid to best support them. 

We may know friends or family members who are distressed due to the sudden death of a loved one, being a victim of crime or involvement in a serious road traffic collision. People experience a range of emotional reactions after a distressing event including disbelief, shock, anger, fear and sadness.  All of these emotional reactions are an ordinary response to an extraordinary event.

Psychological first aid aims to build an individual’s capacity to recover by addressing their emotional and practical needs.


How can I help?

The World Health Organization suggests that “learning the basic principles of psychological first aid will help you provide support to people who are very distressed, and, importantly, to know what not to say.” The basic principles are to promote safety, calm, connectedness, self-efficacy and hope.


What can we do for our family members or friends who are distressed due to a recent crisis? 

1. Safety - Create a ‘safe space’ free from distractions or interruptions if someone wants to talk to us. Provide practical support by finding out what practical help the person needs e.g. cooking a meal, picking up the children from school or driving them to hospital appointments.

2. Calm - Listen empathically if the person wants to talk but do not put pressure on the person to talk, particularly about the event they have experienced. The offer of a hug, a gentle pat on the arm or simply offering a tissue can be comforting for people that we know well.

3. Connectedness - Being present with someone we care about who is experiencing a crisis can show them that we are connected to them. Let them know that we’re here for them but avoid being too pushy or intrusive.

4. Self-efficacy - Help our family member or friend and to think about their own needs. Help them to make decisions by helping them to prioritise problems and think about possible solutions.

5. Hope - Reassure people that their feelings are normal, be there and be willing to help.


These basic principles can be helpful to improve someone’s long term recovery from a crisis as they help people who have experienced distress to feel calmer, supported emotionally, and hopeful about the future. 

Although many people recover from distressing events without professional support, around 1 in 3 people may find that they are unable to come to terms with what has happened. Some people can develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

The symptoms of PTSD usually start within 6 months of a experiencing a traumatic event and involve flashbacks and nightmares, avoidance and constantly looking out for danger (known as hypervigilance). People may seem jumpy, irritable, tearful and have difficulties sleeping.

If your friend or family member has experienced a distressing event within the last 6 months and continues to experience the difficulties described above, give them some information about PTSD and support them to seek professional help.


Clinical Partners is the UK’s largest private mental health partnership, helping adults, children, families and business nationwide.  If you are interested to understanding how we can help you please call 0203 326 9160.



[1] Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC)

Emilie Head

Emilie Head Business Development and Content Editor BA(Hons), ACMA, MBACP

Emilie has three main roles at Clinical Partners – managing our NHS Partnerships, developing the services our Clinicians offer and writing and editing web content.

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