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Psychological First Aid

Bruce Rodgers

Just as officers can administer physical first aid to someone who has been injured in an auto accident, they also can apply psychological first aid to those with acute emotional reactions to disasters. The officers’ principal goal is to return the greatest number of people to effective functioning in the shortest time. In responding to stress or disaster situations, officers should keep in mind the following principles:

1. They should respect every person’s right to his or her own feelings. Just because officers have responded appropriately, they should not expect that everyone else will. They should realize that there will be as many different reactions as there are different people because each person is unique. A psychological casualty is not an inferior or cowardly person.

2. Officers should remember that emotional disability secondary to a disaster situation is as real as physical disability. No one would expect a soldier who has had both of his legs shot off to buck up and go back into the fray. Similarly, police officers should not expect people who have had a severe emotional reaction to pull themselves together quickly and carry on.

3. Every physically injured person will have some emotional reaction to the injury. Furthermore, some people may have severe emotional reactions to minor injuries because of their personal significance. For example, an artist who has cut a finger may have a more severe reaction than a lawyer with the same injury. Occasionally, the major reason for a severe reaction is not obvious and may relate to a symbolic event or unconscious fear.

Because of this fear, people may distort the seriousness of the injury, consequently increasing their emotional reaction. Finally, it is important for police officers to recognize that there is often more strength in people than may initially appear. Although this may seem contradictory to the first principle, which states that a person’s feelings should be recognized and accepted, it is not. Officers should direct their support to the individual’s strength. If this strength can be mobilized, officers can significantly reduce the emotional reaction to a disaster.

4. In handling a disaster situation, officers must remain calm if they are to be effective. They must keep their wits about them so that they do not inadvertently compound the disaster and the emotional reactions to it. Consequently, they also should remember not to do the following when encountering people with acute emotional reactions to stress situations. They should not strike, slap, or hit anyone. They should remember that it will not do any good to tell someone to “snap out of it” or to “use their willpower.” Such statements will only increase feelings of inadequacy, which may already be overwhelming. Finally, they must not upset anyone with pity, blame, or ridicule, since these also will increase feelings of inadequacy.

5. Police officers should establish some form of communication with the person as soon as possible, either verbal or nonverbal. In this regard, it is helpful to remember how a parent treats a hurt child who comes in crying from the playground. The good parent will take the child onto his or her lap, comfort the child, and ask what happened. As the child sobs out the story, the parent may put ice or some medicine on the bruise or scratch and get a bandage while continually reassuring the child that everything will be fine. This is a good example, because many people regress to childlike behavior in disaster situations.

While officers may not take a person onto their laps, they can certainly put an arm around a person, ask what happened, and help the person ventilate feelings. In doing so, officers are not interested in the truth or falsehood of any statements, but rather are trying to get the person to talk about feelings.

6. After establishing communication, the next important thing police officers can do is to get the person to engage in constructive activity. This will reduce physical tension as well as divert the person from thinking about his or her own problems. By serving others, the person’s feelings of adequacy can be restored. However, officers should not let these people help too much in rescue efforts, or they will be exposed to further stress. After this physical release has been achieved, the person should be encouraged to rest and pay attention to his or her own needs, such as hot food or dry clothing. Throughout, officers should firmly convey the expectation that the person will be all right soon.

7. Remember that to suffer together is to suffer less. Officers should try to get the person back to family and friends as soon as possible. For example, if there has been a tornado and people have been rushed to hospitals, officers should try to maintain a list of who went where in order to assist survivors in finding their loved ones.

8. Finally, officers should always be aware of their own feelings. It is natural to feel resentment, anger, and hostility toward those who seem to be physically uninjured and yet contribute nothing to resolving the situation. Officers must not allow these feelings to interfere with their ability to help others in a disaster.

This article is an excerpt from Psychological Aspects of Police Work: An Officer’s Guide to Street Psychology by former police officer and federal agent, Bruce A. Rodgers, PhD.

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