The horrific fires in Sonoma, Napa, and Mendocino counties last month, as well as the terrible recent mass shootings, have reminded me of the importance of psychological first aid. While first responders are there to provide immediate physical aid, trained mental health providers are often quickly on the scene responding to immediate emotional distress and mitigating possible long term consequences. Several of my colleagues helped out in Sonoma after the fires and I feel very proud of them.
I was asked recently what kind of help do mental health professionals provide in these kind of emergency situations. A key role is to help disaster survivors become aware of the resources within themselves to cope and to help themselves. Humans have a remarkable capacity to recover emotionally if they have access to support, usually from family and friends, and to their own emotional tools or coping mechanisms. But people also need to know that their reactions are likely very normal. Very often, after a disaster, people experience extreme emotional reactions that confuse or worry them. In fact, these reactions are a temporary way for the mind to try to cope after something terrible has happened. For example, we may become hyper-vigilant or easily startled, we may have difficulty with concentration or memory, or we may have trouble sleeping or feel irritable. These are very normal reactions to the situation and it helps for people to know that they won't feel like this forever. In fact, most people will go back to their normal level of functioning in four to six weeks.
But a major benefit of having highly trained professional mental health providers on the scene after a disaster is the fact that they can spot the people who may have a harder time recovering. The quicker that professional help can be provided to someone who is struggling, the greater the likelihood of recovery. At the very least, it can help to minimize long term issues.
Finally, psychological first aid is sometimes needed by other disaster responders. Their work is emotionally draining and, if we don't take care of the emergency workers, they can't take care of the community. The ultimate goal is to leave communities with the emotional tools they need to rebuild their lives and to get through any lingering mental health effects.