The World Mental Health Day, celebrated on October 10 every year, is an event that seeks to raise awareness of mental health issues across the globe and to mobilise efforts in support of mental health. This is crucial because mental health problems are important issues worldwide due to their impact on the fundamental human rights and the quality of life of those affected and their families.
The theme for this year’s event is ‘Psychological First-Aid: First Line Psychological Support’. It was developed in a collaborative effort between the World Health Organisation and NGOs endorsed by 24 United Nations and other international agencies.
According to a WHO document, the term PFA was first coined in the 1940s, but its use has increased in modern day crisis event. Just like everyone grew up with the idea of the first aid for persons with injuries or in cases of emergencies, PFA is the first-line psychosocial support for people affected by crisis events. It is now a crucial aspect of psychiatry as more people are bedeviled by different kinds of disasters and crisis.
Let’s not forget that Nigeria and its people have had their unfair share of crisis due to the Boko Haram insurgency and activities of other militants, disease outbreaks, armed robbery, train/ car accident, rape and other forms of physical assault.
This crisis events could be large scale or individualistic. No doubt, these events usually have physical, social and emotional consequences on their victims, especially when they are not detected and addressed early.
Mental health practitioners are very few in this part of the world and they cannot meet up with the number of patients who develop sudden psychological problems.
For every 100,000 Nigerians, there is only one psychiatrist. The same goes for the ratio of psychiatric nurses and psychologists that are needed, considering the enormous mental health burden on the country.
This psychological first-aid is very beneficial and crucial because victims do better over the long term if they feel safe, connected to others, calm and hopeful.
So the concept of psychological first-aid is most relevant for a country like Nigeria, where there are factors that tip individuals into crisis for which they need support each day.
PFA is not what professionals can do; it is not a clinical or psychiatric intervention (although it can be a part of good clinical care). It is not asking people to analyse what happened nor putting pressure on other people to tell their stories or asking details about how they feel and what happened.
PFA is essentially a humane, supportive and practical assistance to fellow human beings who recently suffered a serious mishap. This support should be practical and supportive in a way that assesses needs and concerns. It must help people access basic needs, such as food and water.
A crucial part of it is listening, but not pressing people to talk as it helps them connect to information, services and social support that exist in that particular community.
Usually folks that are involved in PFA are often relatives, neighbours, teachers, community members, religious group members and first responders of various kinds, such as emergency medical teams, police and fire fighters and vigilante groups.
This support can be given anywhere that is safe for the helper and the affected person, ideally with some privacy as appropriate to the situation.
As fantastic as this initiative can be for victims of sudden crisis, volunteers are encouraged to know their limits and give prompt referral to relevant professionals like psychiatrists and psychologists. The culture, safety, dignity and the right of the victim must not be violated in the guise of offering support.
This is where the peculiarity of the African situation comes in, where certain individuals in the family or community can actually take over support without the consent and respect of the victims.
This year’s theme is innovative and everyone is recruited as a stakeholder. This approach has been adopted by many humanitarian agencies and, according to the WHO, the PFA guide and facilitation manual has been made available in about 20 translations in a way that provides learning activities relevant to different cultures and countries around the world.
Our state governments can organise such training for officers that deal with crisis intervention and corporate organisations, too. Clubs and other philanthropic organisations can also buy into this initiative by providing this training and empowerment to help victims of sudden and devastating mishaps get support.