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Psychological First Aid in Disaster Management in the Caribbean

Early in May 2020 I completed a course in Psychological First Aid in Disaster Management in the Caribbean. It was a virtual course offered through a partnership between the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) and the World Health Organisation (WHO). This free, self-learning course is a useful tool that can help first responders provide assistance to individuals “experiencing psychological distress” during and after crisis events.

Dr. Maria Ziegler is the Caribbean Development Bank’s Operations Officer for Gender and Development. She explained that Caribbean people face major tropical storms and other disasters every year; and that this course was designed for “everyone who wants to be active and help”. Dr. Elisa Prieto is the Advisor for Non-Communicable Diseases and Mental Health of the PAHO Caribbean Subregional Office. She also noted that this course was a “proven tool to support volunteers, first responders and community leaders in helping affected persons….”

What is Psychological First Aid (PFA)?

According to the course notes, Psychological First Aid (PFA) is “a humane, supportive response to a person who is suffering.” It is not professional counselling and it does not require that people who need help retell their experiences.” Rather, it is focused on listening to what people have to say and simply being available. PFA is based on several core themes:

  • Providing practical care and support;
  • Assessing the needs and concerns of people;
  • Helping people to tend to their basic needs;
  • Listening to what people have to say;
  • Offering comfort to those in need;
  • Facilitating connections to information;
  • Protecting people from harmful situations.

Why is This Course Relevant?

The purpose of the course is to provide a standardized framework for first responders and professionals in the disaster management field. As a result, it will help them to “deliver psychological and social support for individuals in crisis situations.” Crises can occur at any time and may present psychological difficulties for persons who face them. Therefore we must be ready for both the physical and psychological impacts.

Disaster management professionals and people living in the Caribbean and the United States who face tropical storms, are very aware of the trauma that is associated with tropical weather events. In addition to the physical damage (e.g. the destruction of homes, buildings and other infrastructure); there is also the unseen psychological damage. As a result, knowing how to respond to people during and after a crisis is a useful skill that can possibly alter the outcome of the situation.

Psychological First Aid (PFA) Course Review

The objectives of the courses are to:

  1. Define Psychological First Aid (PFA);
  2. Describe factors to consider in providing PFA;
  3. Discuss the process of providing PFA;
  4. List actions PFA providers take to care for self and colleagues;
  5. Identify individuals with special needs;
  6. Apply PFA to various crisis scenarios.

The ten (10) hour PFA course was designed for persons who may find themselves in a position to offer psychological and social support in a crisis. Consequently, the target audience as outlined in the course programme, includes relief agency volunteers; teachers; and religious leaders.

The course consists of six modules and the structure is as follows:

  1. Understanding PFA (1 hour);
  2. How to Help Responsibly (1 hour);
  3. Providing PFA (3 hours);
  4. People who likely need special attention (2 hours);
  5. Caring for Self and Colleagues (1.5 hours);
  6. Practicing PFA Skills (1 hour)

At the end of the module, there is a final examination consisting of twenty (20) multiple choice questions. The pass mark for the course is 70%. However, participants can re-take the exam as many times as necessary to achieve the passing grade. Additionally, students who successfully pass the course and complete all requirements will be issued with a course completion certificate.

To sign up for the course, please visit the Virtual Campus for Public Health.