Philippines: Health professionals learn psychological first aid to support survivors

December 2013

Using a train-the-trainer approach, Filipino health professionals learn how to teach others to provide psychological first aid to support typhoon survivors.

People are more likely to suffer from a range of mental health problems during and after emergencies. One month after the devastating Typhoon Haiyan, one of WHO’s top health priorities is scaling up mental health and psychosocial support as the country recovers.

"The typhoon will have long-lasting effects," says Dr Julie Hall, the WHO Representative in the country. "We must be prepared to give support to families and communities for the long-term, and we need more trained field workers to do it."

Train-the-trainer workshop, Philippines 2013
WHO/Chantal Claravall

Train-the-trainer workshop on psychological first aid

In response, the Philippine Department of Health (DOH), with WHO support, brought together 25 professionals from government, professional associations, universities and community agencies to learn about WHO-recommended psychological first aid to support typhoon survivors.

Using a train-the-trainer approach, Filipino psychologists, physicians and psychiatrists who took part in the one-day workshop will teach others in their communities to perform the first aid so more survivors have access to basic support.

According to training facilitator Mark van Ommeren, a WHO mental health expert, disseminating this approach widely is a way of ensuring that anyone – teachers, aid workers, police officers and health workers – can be a helper in crisis situations like the typhoon aftermath.

“When they interact with people who are very upset, they will have the skills and confidence to be supportive,” says van Ommeren.

"The typhoon will have long-lasting effects. We must be prepared to give support to families and communities for the long-term, and we need more trained field workers to do it."

Julie Hall, WHO Representative, Philippines

Psychological first aid is humane, supportive and practical help to people who are suffering after crisis events. It covers both social and psychological support. The approach is different from formerly used psychological debriefing – when someone is encouraged to recall the details of a potentially traumatic event. Based on available evidence, experts now agree that this method may hinder recovery.

Through instruction, field guides and role-playing simulations, workshop participants learned how to teach others about support methods for elderly people, adults and children in ways that respect their dignity, culture and abilities.

"During one simulation, participants became tearful," says van Ommeren. "They had just come back from the field and were reminded of how much grief and suffering there is in the affected population."

Scaling-up psychological first aid

Scaling-up psychological first aid involves training workers how to recognize signs of distress in survivors and how to apply proven methods that ease suffering – such as listening to people without pressuring them to talk, assessing their needs and concerns, helping them to meet basic needs, creating opportunities for social support, and protecting them from further harm.

Participants were reminded that some age groups or populations are more at risk than others for psychosocial problems. Children, people with underlying health conditions, such as pregnant women and frail older adults, are likely to need special attention.

At the train-the-trainer workshop, Philippines
WHO/Chantal Claravall

"This first aid approach really has a big impact because even in some cases with children you can see it calm the person. It helps them to just breathe easier," says Gloria, a government participant.

“I’ve been sent to previous disasters before but you could see that this is really something bigger,” says Dr Ronald Law, a DOH disaster mental health specialist. “Psychological first aid is something that we are really trying to disseminate to all health workers. It is a practical and powerful tool.”

Approach conducive for local context

The approach fits the Philippine context and culture well.

“Filipinos, we are very compassionate. So it is kind of cultural for us to be warm to people and aid someone who is seeking help,” explains Dr Criselda Abesamis, Director of the Special Concerns Technical Cluster at DOH. “This makes the approach very conducive for our local context.”

Most people will recover well from mental health challenges over time, if they are able to restore their basic needs and get mental health and psychosocial support when they need it.