By Luz Wendy Noble
In a country situated near the Pacific Ring of Fire where an average of 20 typhoons per year pass through, natural disasters are a usual threat to people’s lives.
Besides the visible torment these events can bring to people, they can also affect the psychological well-being of the survivors, long after the physical wounds have healed.
In celebration of National Mental Health Week, Ateneo de Manila University (ADMU) psychology professor Dr. Ma. Regina Alampay discussed the necessity of being equipped with psychological first aid (PFA) skills in Feel: A Workshop on Psychological First Aid, an event by the UP Psychological Society, the University Student Council and the UP Office for Counseling and Guidance, Oct. 6.
According to Alampay, the Filipino people’s safety, including their physical and mental state, should be ensured after a traumatic incident. The latter, however, is usually not given much attention compared to the visible damages the person is experiencing.
Alampay promoted PFA as something that even non-psychologists could do, clarifying that PFA is not the same as counselling or debriefing. In addition to this, she also encouraged the audience to take part in it if the need arises.
“It’s a basic intervention done immediately at the aftermath of an emergency,” Alampay said, explaining that PFA includes sustaining the safety of survivors, listening to them, comforting them and helping them connect to what their needs are at that moment.
Alampay also cited studies on how survivors need to feel safe after an emergency.
“Each person has his/her own way of healing. [PFA is] not pressuring people to talk,” Alampay explained.
“Madalas ma-associate ang healing through catharsis. Basta umiyak, okay na. Hindi po totoo ‘yun. Minsan, that’s what [the survivors] do not want to happen,” she added.
The ADMU professor also mentioned that addressing a survivor’s psychological need after the traumatic experience could be distinguished using the Mental Health and Psychosocial Support Services (MHPSS) Pyramid, which was based on the Inventory of Altered Self Capacities (IASC) guidelines laid out in 2007.
According to the MHPSS pyramid, a survivor’s need for psychological support varies according to their ability to cope with the trauma and the amount of time that has passed after the tragedy occurred.
Alampay explained that administering PFA will be helpful for survivors who experience mild psychological distress after a disastrous event.
However, she also clarified that those who experience mild and moderate psychological distress even after three months from the incident may need focused and non-specialized support from family and friends.
She also said those who experience severe psychological distress, which can even be Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), will need to have specialized services from experts like psychologists and psychiatrists.
According to Alampay, there are three basic steps in PFA—look, listen and link.
To look is to check for safety, basic needs and to attend to those who are most at risk. Alampay identified pregnant women, elderly and persons with disability (PWDs) to be survivors with greater risks.
The person performing PFA must also listen verbally and non-verbally, Alampay suggested, stressing the need for empathic listening from the side of the PFA provider.
“If you know that somebody is listening to you, what’s the tendency? You will keep on communicating with them,” she said.
PFA providers are also not required to advise the survivors unless they ask of it, Alampay added.
“People have the right to feel what they feel. Who are we to tell them what they should be feeling?” Alampay said.
Finally, the PFA provider should know how to link–helping the survivor get what they need which may include food, medicine and sanitation.
Alampay clarified that PFA is not limited to addressing the mental needs of a survivor, but also finding a way to provide practical help.
She gave natural disasters as a scenario where practical help could also be given by the FPA provider. In times where communication after a disaster becomes barred or inaccessible to the survivors, Alampay explained it is the PFA provider’s responsibility to help them find a way to contact their loved ones.
Alampay also reminded that PFA providers should remain calm in the face of addressing survivors’ needs, no matter how grave the situation was for them.
“Make sure also that you are okay before you help others. Because if you are not, you cannot give what you do not have,” she reminded.
Alampay’s talk succeeded the discussion on everyday stressors by Prof. Lorelei Vinluan from the UP College of Education.
Vinluan explained that everyday stressors may include traffic, body size, physical appearance, love life, finances and family problems. The UP professor urged students to avail of the services of the UP Diliman Office for Counselling and Guidance to help them cope with their personal stressors.
UP students as well as students from other universities including Ateneo de Manila University, Far Eastern University, New Era University, and the University of Caloocan also attended the workshop.
(Photo by Luz Wendy Noble.)