Psychological First Aid course a training method to help recover from a disaster

VERMILLION – People caught up in disasters, like the tornadoes that devastated Moore, Okla. and Granbury, Texas this past month, require more than life-saving first aid – they need psychological first aid. First responders do heroic work saving lives but what about the stress on them and the people they save? That’s why the Disaster Mental Health Institute (DMHI) at the University of South Dakota is developing and assessing various psychological first aid training for the general public, veterans and first responders.

Since 1993, the DMHI has trained experts and first responders in preparation for and following the aftermath of some of the world’s biggest disasters. DMHI faculty have been engaged both nationally and internationally in disaster preparedness and response, and crisis intervention, and the DMHI is implementing its experience in disaster response training to help the general public cope with disasters and traumatic events as well as the day-to-day stress of life, using community-based Psychological First Aid (PFA).

“This is the form of psychological support endorsed by the National Biodefense Science Board (NBSB),” explained Gerard Jacobs, Ph.D., USD psychology professor and director of the Disaster Mental Health Institute. “The National Biodefense Science Board’s recommendations were to train the general public and, in turn, have more specialized training for first responders, disaster relief workers and civic officials.”

Chartered by Congress to develop preparedness and response plans for bioterrorist attacks and public health emergencies, the NBSB advocated that PFA training be made available to the public to prepare for and accelerate the recovery process from disasters.

“Community-based PFA teaches people how to respond and, more importantly, to be able to take care of family, friends and colleagues more effectively during times of crisis,” said Jacobs, who was one of the Institute of Medicine committee that authored “Preparing for the Psychological Consequences of Terrorism: A Public Health Strategy.” “With that in mind, we are currently conducting research on the effectiveness of our PFA programs for EMS personnel and for veterans, and we are evaluating the effectiveness of the American Red Cross PFA course for the general public.”

Jacobs added that Randal Quevillon, Ph.D., USD psychology professor, is supervising research on the effectiveness of PFA for Native Americans and that a more-detailed PFA course is currently part of the psychology curriculum at USD, and a required course for USD students minoring in Disaster Response (non-psychology majors) and for psychology majors completing the Specialization in Disaster Response. Additionally, DMHI continues to offer the Graduate Certificate in Disaster Mental Health and the Doctoral Specialty Track in Clinical/Disaster Psychology.

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