What is Psychological First Aid?

After someone experiences a traumatic event, their early reactions can lead to distress that interferes with coping. Psychological First Aid (PFA) is a disaster relief technique developed by the National Child Traumatic Stress Network and the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

The goal of the intervention is to provide people with safety, stability, and resources immediately after a traumatic event to improve survivors’ coping abilities. This article explains how PFA is used, who performs it, and its results.

What is Psychological First Aid?

PFA is not an on-site treatment. Instead, it connects with people in the aftermath of a disaster, providing resources and support for their immediate needs.

PFA consists of eight core components, including:

  • initial contact
  • Keep people safe and comfortable
  • Calm and guide people
  • Identify people’s immediate needs
  • provide practical help
  • Connect people and resources
  • Provide coping strategies
  • Connect people with collaborative services

PFA is not professional mental health care. In fact, laymen (those without professional credentials) often perform it. However, certain understandings of people’s coping needs guide PFA, including:

  • Need to feel safe, connected and hopeful
  • need support
  • The need for self-reliance

Since 9/11, mental health professionals have widely supported and advocated PFA as early intervention for disaster survivors.

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As a concept, PSA was introduced in the mid-20th century. However, it gained traction as a disaster response in the post-9/11 era.

In 2001, in response to mass shootings and terrorist attacks in schools and workplaces, the National Institute of Mental Health brought together 60 mental health experts to discuss psychological interventions for mass violence. Since then, PFA has become integral to early intervention in disaster response.

“Psychological first aid” is the most widely used term to describe immediate emotional support after a crisis. However, other terms are also used, including:

  • community-based psychosocial support
  • Disaster Behavioral Health First Aid
  • Mental Health First Aid
  • stress first aid

When is it used?

PFA benefits anyone who has survived or witnessed a traumatic event, including people of any age and gender. The World Health Organization (WHO) has identified the following events as crisis events that can benefit from PFA:

  • natural disaster
  • war
  • Terrorist attacks
  • disease outbreak
  • shift
  • robbery
  • assault

After a disaster, people have a common stress response. By reducing people’s immediate stress through PFA, people may have better long-term coping abilities. Common stress reactions include:

  • Puzzled
  • fear
  • despair
  • Insomnia
  • pain
  • anger
  • sad
  • Shock
  • guilty

who did it?

Anyone can receive Psychological First Aid training. However, because some people are more likely to be present after a disaster, PFA is often used for the following people:

  • first responder
  • medical personnel
  • School Crisis Response Team
  • disaster relief organization
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Basic First Aid Procedures You Should Know

how does this work

Providing PFA may vary from crisis to crisis, and even from person to person. That’s because every situation is unique. Furthermore, while there are common responses to disasters, everyone has individual responses and their immediate needs are different.

Personnel trained in PFA learn how to facilitate the following:

  • Safety: Responders help people find food, shelter and medical assistance.
  • Calm: Responders listen to people’s stories and feelings.
  • Connect: Responders help people find friends and family and reunite them.
  • Hope: Responders remind people that help is coming and tell them about the resources available.
  • Self-efficacy: Responders make suggestions on how people can help themselves.

what it is not

PFA is not a treatment, mental health treatment or reporting. Responders avoid forced interactions, give simple reassurances, or tell people how they should feel or what they should do.

Evidence for Psychological First Aid

Despite widespread use and promotion, there is little scientific evidence to support the effectiveness of post-disaster PFA. However, this practice is still considered an evidence-based practice (using current best practices to make decisions about personal care).

Evidence-Based Practice

Evidence-based practice or evidence-based practice is considered the gold standard of care. That’s because they’re based on proven scientific evidence. However, in the absence of adequate scientific support, evidence-based practice is enriched by, but not necessarily limited by, evidence.

PFA is based on the accepted concept of human resilience. Additionally, the Mental Health and Disaster Research and Response Organization developed the PFA. Therefore, practice is based on existing knowledge and research.


Psychological First Aid (PFA) is a disaster response that supports people in the immediate aftermath of a crisis. The goal is to reduce people’s major stress by connecting them to resources, reuniting them with family and friends, and offering hope for better long-term coping.

VigorTip words

PFA is an essential skill that almost anyone can learn. However, it is critical for first responders, medical workers and disaster responders. Some organizations offer PFA training. If you are interested in training, the American Psychology has a list of training offered by various organizations.