Dignity in Mental Health: Psychological and Mental Health First Aid

Today, October 10th, is World Mental Health Day. This annual event is an opportunity to raise awareness of mental health issues around the world. An initiative of the World Federation for Mental Health, the theme for this year’s WMHD is Psychological and Mental Health First Aid. Here we discuss how the concepts of psychological and mental health first aid can be used by everyone to support individuals experiencing a crisis.


Recognizing a mental health crisis: Mental health first aid

Mental disorders account for significant global health burden, with data from the WHO World Mental Health (WMH) Surveys estimating that more than 25% of the population worldwide will develop one or more mental disorders during their lifetime. While first aid for physical health crises is a familiar notion, conventional first aid training has not been routinely incorporated into mental health care. Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) aims to teach participants how to recognize symptoms of mental health problems.  MHFA educates people about how to identify, understand and help a person who may be developing a mental health issue. The idea being that providing MHFA offers initial support until appropriate professional help is received or until the mental health crisis is resolved. A recent meta-analysis indicates that MHFA enhances mental health knowledge, decreases negative attitudes (stigma), and increases supportive behaviors toward individuals with mental health problems.


First developed in Australia in 2000, MHFA has since spread to many other countries. MHFA training courses are now widely available to non-mental health professionals (e.g emergency services and nurses) and members of the public, with specific schemes adapted to providing MHFA in schools and in the workplace.


Reducing the impact of traumatic events: Psychological first aid

Crisis events occur in all communities all over the world. Recent data from the World Mental Health Surveys indicates that over 70% of the population worldwide has been exposed to a traumatic event. Knowing how to support someone who has just undergone a crisis of any kind is key to minimizing the impact of traumatic events on mental health. Psychological first aid (PFA) is a technique for assisting people in the immediate aftermath of a traumatic incident or disaster. Originally developed in 2006 by the National Child Traumatic Stress Network and the National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a method for non-mental health professionals (including first-responders and volunteers) to help minimize psychological distress in disaster survivors, PFA is designed to reduce the occurrence of Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD; a disorder that can develop after a person is exposed to a traumatic event). Disaster survivors may experience a large range of psychological reactions, which may interfere with normal coping mechanisms in some individuals. The basic principle of PFA is that, in the immediate aftermath of the traumatic event, social support from a compassionate individual may aid in long-term recovery. Unlike Psychological debriefing (a formal single session debriefing immediately following a traumatic event which is has been demonstrated to have little or no efficacy in recent meta-analyses), PFA does not involve discussion of the traumatic event itself. PFA provides a framework for supporting individuals in ways that respect their dignity and culture.

PFA is now endorsed by many international agencies, including the World Health Organization and “reflects the emerging science and international consensus on how to support people in the immediate aftermath of extremely stressful events”. However, the concepts contained within PFA don’t apply only to large scale disasters, and can be implemented under more ordinary, day to day situations, to provide support to those in need.


Want to know more? Read the latest research on PFA and MHFA from BMC Psychiatry and BMC Psychology.

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