Psychological first aid important in wake of deadly storms

Caring for storm victims’ psychological wounds important too, says UAB psychologist.

Ambulances arrive at UAB in this footage from Wednesday evening.

People in Alabama are experiencing a real tragedy in the aftermath of yesterday’s deadly storms. It’s important to realize just how severely the many losses are being felt, and while emergency responders are helping those with physical injuries, it’s important to care for those with psychological wounds as well, says Joshua C. Klapow, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and associate professor in the UAB School of Public Health.

“We should not underestimate how traumatic this is,” Klapow says. “People are dazed, they are confused, and although that is very normal, it can also be dangerous. When we witness or experience these kinds of things, we have a hard time concentrating and processing information. There are a lot of safety instructions right now that people have to comply with, and that can be hard when you can’t get your head straight because your world’s been turned upside down.”

There are very basic things that need to be attended to psychologically, not just physically, he says. It’s psychological first aid, just like physical first aid.

To care for yourself and others, Klapow says:

  • Ensure that you, your family and those around you have their basic physical needs met—food, clothing and shelter. It calms stress, he says.

  • Let people talk about it. “Lots of victims want to just kind of state over and over again what they’ve been through, and that helps them stay focused and reduce stress.”

  • Help people stay connected to each other, which can be challenging but important when normal routines have been disrupted. “Get that social network together, connect people with family friends, community. It will help reduce their stress so they can pay attention to the safety instructions,” he says.

  • Keep calm and cool when caring for children during crisis. “It’s important that you appear to be in control of the situation. Listen to the child and be willing to explain what has happened again and again, as children often need more time to process catastrophic events. Let them know that feeling fear is OK, and then reassure them that they are safe,” he says. Most children will bounce back to normal in a very short time. Check with your pediatrician if that isn’t the case.

  • Live each moment as it comes. Take a break to care for yourself, and use deep breathing, prayer or meditation to keep the body and mind calm, he says. “Take one day at a time, set small, realistic goals and take action, lean on family, friends and community and attend to basic physical needs,” Klapow says. “A healthy body and mind is much better equipped to deal with strong emotions and extreme circumstances.”

  • To be resilient in a crisis, pay attention to stress symptoms. Those include stomachaches, headache, trouble sleeping and problems concentrating. For those in need right now, Klapow says the Red Cross is the best resource. Now is not the time to soldier on, but to reach out. “If you are suffering, let a first responder know,” says Klapow.