Psychological First Aid (PFA) – there are many different protocols, great confusion about its relationship to Critical Incident Stress Management (PFA is part of it), and it is increasingly recommended by people and organizations who often don’t seem to recognize that PFA has multiple meanings, is limited in scope and hasn’t yet been confirmed as effective in field evaluations.

I’m not a PFA skeptic – I use it and teach it – but it needs more, careful investigation.

A recent report took a look at PFA’s popularity and lack of field evaluation. The authors are from  two academic centers focused on emergencies and mental health:

The authors give a nod to the down-to-earth nature of PFA guidelines, which are “evidence-informed,” meaning that they are based on related research:

[PFA is] documenting and operationalizing good common sense – those activities that sensible, caring human beings would do for each other anyway.

As the authors observe, the lack of proof that PFA works doesn’t mean it is ineffective. It means that PFA’s effectiveness hasn’t been demonstrated.

They identified forty-eight PFA courses and materials! Yet, oddly, they failed to include one that has been around for quite a while, the SAFER-R model developed by George Everly and incorporated in ICISF CISM training.

Now the bad news.

PFA’s popularity, promotion, and proliferation have not been matched with a commensurate pursuit of evidence demonstrating its effectiveness. Not only is there a dearth of data regarding the benefits of PFA, but there is limited demonstration of widespread commitment to generate such data.

However, like other kinds of crisis intervention, PFA is difficult to study. With nearly 50 different approaches, it is hard for researchers to know exactly what care is being given. There is no way to create control groups – they have to be observed, which is daunting.

The writers offer five recommendations.

  1. Evaluating PFA with first responders, rather than disaster survivors, “may be a good place to start.”
  2. Hospital emergency rooms or other controlled settings might be good places to begin to evaluate PFA for civilians.
  3. We need to figure out how to test its effectiveness for civilians in real disasters. “Predictable disasters” such as annual flooding might create opportunities.
  4. International coordination will make evaluation most effective – agreement on methods and techniques.
  5. PFA should be adapted as the field of trauma evolves. The authors are working on an approach that suggests that early intervention can be tailored to the nature of an incident.

A similar report, by an international group of researchers for the Belgian Red Cross-Flanders, reviewed literature the literature on PFA and came to essentially the same conclusion:

The scientific literature on psychological first aid available to date, does not provide any evidence about the effectiveness of PFA interventions. Currently it is impossible to make evidence-based guidelines about which practices in psychosocial support are most effective to help disaster and trauma victims.