« Back to index

What should be in a psychological first aid kit?

Written by Koen Smets (7 Oct 2016)

This year sees the 25th edition of World Mental Health Day (WMHD). On 10 October, the World Health Organization seeks to raise awareness and educate people around psychological health and wellbeing. This year's theme is psychological first aid.

Just like the general term first aid conjures up images of freeing someone's airways or stemming someone’s blood flow following a serious accident, it evokes some kind of acute psychological trauma in the immediate aftermath of a disaster or a terrorist attack. But both are often very useful in far less spectacular situations. Many of the guidelines that would be relevant in the moments just after a major incident also apply, and while proper medical first aid requires training in things like applying a tourniquet and resuscitation techniques, most of us are perfectly capable of delivering some psychological first aid to someone who is distressed.

The guidelines in your psychological first aid kit are mostly about your own attitude and disposition. Perhaps the most important guideline is to listen actively. This is a skill we all possess.

  • Show genuine interest, but don't interrogate. Let the other person lead the conversation, even if there is a lot of silence. Don’t make any assumptions about what they are feeling or experiencing, or about what may be causing their distress.
  • If they elaborate about an actual situation, don’t be drawn in taking sides or judging, but do empathize with how the other person feels as a result of the situation.
  • Avoid closed questions, and even direct questioning using words like 'how', 'when' or 'why'. Often the simple phrase 'tell me about X' is all that is needed to lower the threshold for the other person to open up.
  • Show respect for the way they are trying to cope – whatever that is – and express belief that they are capable of getting through this, but do not make empty promises, or say 'it could be worse' or that they 'should get over it'.
  • Avoid having to break off the conversation abruptly – make sure you have enough time before engaging. If you are happy to do so, offer to talk again in the future (but of course make sure you can actually do it!)

In general, bear in mind that, in the same way that medical first aid aims to stabilize the physical condition of a person and not to perform surgery, the purpose of psychological first aid is to reduce the level of distress and address immediate needs, not to solve fundamental underlying problems. But if you believe that professional help is needed, then you may want to encourage the other person to explore this – perhaps with your support.

While these guidelines are used by professionals, they are not complicated to apply. Any of us can do this. And just like its physical equivalent, psychological first aid may make a huge difference to someone else's life. Just like physical first aid can prevent worse injuries and stop infections from spreading, psychological first aid can stall and reverse the mental downward spiral. It can be as simple as asking "How are you?"

Read also: The How Are You Challenge