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  • Dr. Lillian Nejad

How to talk to people affected by the bushfires: An approach informed by Psychological First Aid

What is Psychological First Aid (PFA)

PFA is a protocol that emergency responders utilise to help people who have just experienced a disaster or a traumatic experience. PFA is not considered a formal therapy or a clinical treatment; it is about providing the basics in terms of information and support to help distressed people feel safe and secure moving forward. PFA involves ensuring safety & security, providing emotional support, and imparting practical information and assistance.

Common reactions to an emergency or environmental disaster

The psychological responses to emergencies are comprised of a range of cognitions and emotions.

Cognitive responses: Often traumatic events and environmental disasters are sudden and unexpected. Experiencing these sorts of emergencies can make people believe that the world is an unsafe place and lead them to feel unsafe and insecure about the future.

Emotional responses: Anxiety, stress, anger, despair—people can experience a whole range of emotions after experiencing a trauma or emergency. Individuals who may be at a higher risk of experiencing significant distress are those that have experienced previous trauma or disasters, and those that experienced significant losses, witnessed the loss of life, or were at risk of losing their own life.

It is important to note that most people do not develop serious mental health issues or require psychological treatment after emergencies. Research has shown that most people recover well with just basic emotional and practical support. Psychological First Aid is about providing this kind of support.

PFA: The Basics

Anyone who has been through a harrowing experience will benefit from any support and assistance that helps them feel safe, secure, and hopeful about the future. You need special training to provide PFA, but even without this training, you can support someone you know who has been affected by the bushfires more effectively by being informed by these best practice guidelines.

  • Listen to what the person needs: Be careful not to make assumptions about what an individual’s response will be or what kind of support they will want or need. Do not assume that they will want to talk about the trauma that they have just experienced or that helping them to open about what happened will be helpful. In fact, research shows that pressing people to talk about their traumatic experiences before they are ready can be harmful to their mental health. If they want to talk about it, listen and provide emotional support, but do not probe them for more details. If they don't want to talk about it, listen to what they do want to talk about.

  • Provide practical assistance: Ensure that people’s basic needs (food, water, shelter) are met. Help them connect to their family and friends. Assist them to link in with other medical or psychological services if needed.

  • Provide information: If you can, give clear and accurate information about the emergency itself and how it is being managed. Let them know about what help they can receive and where they can go additional assistance. Make sure they have heard and understood the information you have provided.

  • Validate their emotional responses: It is helpful for people to know and understand that their emotional reactions are reasonable and understandable given what they have experienced. If they are significantly distressed or at risk of harming themselves or others, access professional help immediately.

  • Stay connected: Being connected to people who care is an important part of healing. Some people may not want or require your help in the immediate aftermath of an emergency or trauma; but that does not mean they will never want your support or assistance. Make sure to stay connected to ensure they feel supported when they need it.

  • Take care of yourself: Stay safe and don't put yourself in danger, physically or emotionally. You may become distressed or feel overwhelmed hearing about the experiences of your friend or loved one. Make sure you have someone to talk to and a self-care plan after you have provided support to someone else.

I just want to express my thanks to all the firefighters for keeping us out of harm's way. Stay safe everybody.

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