Plasters for the mind

When a disaster strikes, physical needs such as clean water, food and medical care often get the most attention; but in an emergency, those practical needs are not the only things that need to be taken care of. 

Disaster events are by their nature highly disruptive; our sense of a ‘normal’ life can disappear for days, months, even years. When Red Cross staff and volunteers went door knocking after the Christchurch earthquakes, damaged homes and broken communities had left many people feeling emotionally distressed. And this is where New Zealand Red Cross can help.

“Effectively addressing distress straight after a disaster by providing basic emotional and practical support can help people’s adjustment to their ‘new normal’,” Pip Mabin, New Zealand Red Cross Psychosocial Training Coordinator, explains. 

“It is why we developed a Psychological First Aid (PFA) training for our volunteers and staff after the Christchurch earthquakes. And just like you don’t have to be a qualified doctor to provide physical first aid, you don’t have to be a psychologist to provide PFA."

When the training was set up for Red Cross staff and volunteers, nobody had expected another major earthquake so soon after the Christchurch earthquakes. But on 14 November 2016, Red Cross staff and volunteers were some of the first on the ground in North Canterbury and Marlborough.

“We knew the PFA training would be very valuable for volunteers and staff supporting people in an emergency. We just didn’t think we were going to be able to test that in practice so soon,” Pip says. 

“Volunteers working in North Canterbury felt more confident to give emotional support to those affected by the disaster and they have a good understanding how important psychosocial support is. It has helped them enormously in their ability to assist people.”

Craig Titheridge has been working as a Red Cross volunteer for many years and was one of the first to attend a PFA training. He put his training to good use in North Canterbury after the November 2016 earthquake.

“PFA alters your perception of the conversation,” he says. “You ask a few more questions. A lot of people just want to have a talk and cup of tea. But you also know how to recognise the signs of distress even if they try to hide it. You look at the body language for signs they need more help.

“I was dealing with a couple of ladies in the community. You couldn’t just have a 10-minute chat with them so I spent quite some time talking with them. I realised they needed further help and was able to get them referred on for professional help as they just weren’t coping.

“We also attended a community meeting and from the reactions during the meeting I knew who to talk to afterwards.”

While it started as an internal training course designed for Red Cross staff and volunteers, Red Cross is now training a variety of professionals and volunteers involved in supporting people after a disaster.

“We trained more people around the country in PFA in the first six months of this year than we did for the whole of 2016,” Pip says. “Some 700 people attended our PFA training course between January and June. It will help make Christchurch and New Zealand a lot more resilient.”

Book a PFA course now. More courses coming.