Whenever the topic of mental health comes up, there’s a term used over again and again: psychological first aid. And yet, it’s not always clear exactly what that means. “First aid” might conjure images of a kit with band-aids and disinfectant wipes, but psychological first aid is a little different. It’s still a set of tools that people can use to help others, but no band-aids are required.

Read on for more about psychological first aid and to learn one of the models Medical Teams uses with the people we serve!

What is psychological first aid?

Psychological first aid is a set of skills that help people in distress who need support managing their situation and coping with immediate challenges. Often, psychological first aid is used in crisis responses, like after a disaster or conflict. But it’s actually a useful set of skills for many different situations, including our personal lives.

People who are trained in psychological first aid are better able to support people experiencing mental distress. Though there are different methods for applying the principles of psychological first aid, the focus is on the following goals: providing a comforting and calming environment, assessing needs and concerns of the affected person, actively listening without pressure or judgment, providing non-intrusive and practical help, and connecting the affected person to information and further support if necessary.

It’s important to note that psychological first aid is not a specialized skill or something only professionals can do. That said, it also doesn’t take the place of professional counseling or therapy. When anyone is trained in psychological first aid, they are better prepared to help people experiencing a crisis.

Why does it matter?

In Colombia, one of our community health workers, Milton, checks on the well-being of people about to enter the Darien Gap. Photo by Lina Hernandez.

Psychological first aid matters because it’s a skillset that can be used at all levels of mental health and psychosocial support, by anyone. After any kind of emergency — something like a natural disaster, armed conflict, or displacement — many people experience significant psychological and social stress. The reality is that these kinds of events take an enormous toll on the mind and body. From acute stress in the immediate aftermath to long term effects, people experience a variety of symptoms.

Some common reactions to stress might be familiar. For example, headaches, sleep issues, appetite changes, and exhaustion are all routinely reported after a distressing event. Relatedly, people also may feel angry, afraid, shocked, or numb after an adverse event.

In addition, emergencies disrupt the normal support systems people rely on. The aftermath of an emergency can have far-reaching consequences at the individual, family, and community level. People aren’t able to access the services they need to feel safe and secure. They may not know where friends or loved ones are, or had to leave them behind. They may struggle to get their basic needs met. This kind of destabilization can also exacerbate pre-existing mental health conditions.

Therefore, implementing psychological first aid at every level of care during a response is a key way organizations like Medical Teams can help people recover their mental well-being. It can also help identify who might need more support down the road.

How is psychological first aid used?

In the U.S., psychological first aid was used during COVID clinics. Photo by Lauren Odderstol.

After an emergency, people will do better in the long-term if they have access to social, emotional, and physical support. When people feel safe and connected to others, and regain a sense of control by being able to help themselves, they will be more likely to recover their sense of well-being.

For these reasons — and so many more! — psychological first aid should be incorporated into every emergency response and care setting. Typically, it’s used shortly after a stressor has occurred but can be used even years after the fact. This skillset is applicable to any crisis a person is experiencing, whether it’s personal or a community-wide event.
There are different models for how psychological first aid is used. At Medical Teams, we most often implement the “Look, Listen, and Link” model.


Often, the best way to help someone starts before you even begin speaking to them. That’s when “look” comes into play. The first step is to look for information on what has happened, or is still happening, when it comes to the crisis. Having this basic knowledge means that a person won’t have to relive the experience by explaining what they’ve been through. It also helps the provider understand what safety and security risks might be applicable, both for them and the person they’re trying to help.

“Look” also applies to a visual assessment of the person in question. For example, a provider might look for physical injuries or emotional reactions to help determine what a person might need. Helping someone meet their immediate basic and practical needs can help them feel stable enough to start addressing what other ways they might need support.


Then, a provider of psychological first aid will “listen” to the person who is experiencing distress. First, they should approach them with care by introducing themselves and asking a few basic questions. Throughout the interaction, it’s important to be present and pay attention, regardless of the chaos of the surroundings. Providers should also listen actively, and use non-verbal and verbal engagement to encourage the person in distress. Additionally, restating and summarizing can help affirm the person’s experience. Whatever the person is feeling is appropriate, and providers should accept whatever response comes up.

Using a calm and soft tone of voice, providers should try to help soothe the person in distress as much as possible. Asking them about their concerns is another way to help address the needs that are most critical to them.


Finally, everyone practicing psychological first aid should “link” the person they’re helping to further resources. That might mean helping someone access information and connect them with loved ones or social support. They might need help tackling practical problems to meet their immediate needs, which could mean everything from getting a meal to finding where they’ll sleep that night. That’s also a quick way to help them access services or get further help, depending on what their situation is like.

Additionally, when someone has experienced a distressing event, they might have trouble making decisions or thinking clearly. Someone with psychological first aid training can help them prioritize their needs and consider the support available to them so they can move forward.

Caring for the whole person

At Medical Teams, caring for the whole person — physically, emotionally, spiritually, and socially — is one small way we fulfill our calling. That’s why many of our caregivers are trained in psychological first aid. It’s a set of skills and attitudes that are used to provide a safe, calm environment and provide practical help for people experiencing distress.

Lean more about how we care for the mental health of the people we serve!