After A Traumatic Event, Consider Psychological First Aid

Photo: Win McNamee, Getty Images

When something traumatic happens, people have psychological needs as well as physical ones. Mental health professionals from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas volunteered to help after the Las Vegas shooting last year, and they recently told The Conversation what good psychological first aid looks like.

Michelle Paul, Heather Dahl and John A. Nixon of UNLV provided trauma counselling that day. Here’s what they say helped the evacuees they assisted:

  • Physical and practical needs. Besides medical care, this included blankets and rides home, and phone chargers so people could keep in touch with their loved ones.
  • Reliable information. When rumours are flying and chaos reigns, solid information is invaluable.
  • What to expect. It isn’t unusual to have trouble sleeping or to feel nervous or agitated after experiencing a traumatic situation. The UNLV scholars also told their clients what symptoms, such as persistent anxiety, would mean they need further professional help.
  • Where to find help later. People may not realise right away that they need help, or what kind of help they need.
  • Coping strategies. People who have been through trauma need ways to navigate their life and to try to feel safe again. Those could include breathing exercises, and problem-solving sessions to identify and avoid situations that could trigger traumatic memories.

What doesn’t help, for most people, is a “debriefing” session in which survivors talk for hours about their experiences. Once thought to prevent post-traumatic stress disorder, it can backfire and increase stress and complicate recovery.

Ultimately, though, the most appropriate psychological first aid will vary from person to person. The scholars say, “Some of the people we worked with following the Oct. 1 shooting needed to talk. Some needed to sit quietly. Some needed to get busy and find something to do to feel helpful. Some needed to take a day to themselves. There are typical human stress responses to an abnormal event, but there is no one prescribed journey toward healing.”


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