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Emotional Rescue:
Applying Psychological First Aid Can Help Flood Victims Bounce Back

by Alison Dunn

When people are rescued after disaster, getting appropriate first aid is a necessity. But the psychological impact of a disaster is just as important to address as the physical impacts.

That’s where psychological first aid comes into play, says Bob VandePol, president of Crisis Care Network. The principles behind psychological first aid are simple but effective – in many ways it’s like performing a triage function for the mind.

Psychological first aid is not long-term counseling for things like post-traumatic stress disorder. Instead, the goal is to tap into a person’s natural resilience to help them cope with the disaster in the days to come.

“In many ways it’s similar to what an emergency room nurse does,” VandePol says. “A trained mental health professional comes in and does an immediate assessment of those impacted and, for the vast majority of people, provides immediate support and consultation before returning them to adaptive function. Or, if necessary, the counselor points them in the direction of an appropriate level of care.”

Most people, VandePol says, will recover after the application of psychological first aid without needing further counseling. The idea is to help people tap into their natural strengths to deal with the crisis.

Psychological First Aid and Flooding
The application of psychological first aid is slightly different when it comes to flooding, however. The problem, VandePol says, is that a flood is a long, drawn-out event with some tough psychological ramifications.

“The time factor is one of the worst elements of a flood disaster,” he says. “You not only have the significant and immediate impact of seeing five feet of water in your house, but you also have the lengthy, negative experience of a mountain of unpleasant things you have to address for the next few days, weeks and even months. That just compounds the flood’s impact.”

It is not helpful to simply rush in and try to “fix” the psyches of flood victims, VandePol says. Instead, he recommends a phase-sensitive approach that includes:

  1. Contacting and engaging those in need of assistance
  2. Providing comfort and safety for those affected
  3. Stabilizing situations and reactions
  4. Information gathering to assess impact
  5. Giving victims practical assistance
  6. Connecting them with social supports
  7. Giving them information about coping
  8. Linking victims with collaborative services.
    (Source: NCCTS & National Center for Traumatic Stress, 2005)

But while the application of psychological first aid might be different after flooding disasters, the key is still to help victims find their own internal resilience, VandePol says. And, he adds, that’s where people in the Midwest have really shone during this disaster.

“The folks in the Midwest have exercised their own resilience factors in pulling through this,” he says. “They are strong, independent people with strong families, strong neighborhoods, strong churches and strong communities.”

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