Institute for Disaster Mental Health supports campus COVID-19 response with Psychological First Aid

The Institute for Disaster Mental Health (IDMH) at SUNY New Paltz shared needed expertise with faculty and staff on Monday, March 23, during a comprehensive training on Psychological First Aid and Stress Management focused on the coronavirus pandemic.

[View the “Psychological First Aid and Stress Management” presentation slides via this link]

Trainers Amy Nitza and Karla Vermeulen, the director and deputy director of the IDMH, respectively, defined “Psychological First Aid” as a toolkit of strategies that anyone can use to care for themselves and others in anxious times.

“In abnormal circumstances when we don’t know when ‘normal’ will return, it’s understandable and rational for us to react with stress,” Vermeulen said. “By applying Psychological First Aid, we can help ourselves, our families, our colleagues and our students manage and reduce this natural stress, and prevent these responses from contributing to more lasting emotional consequences.”

Psychological First Aid is unique among other trauma response interventions in its accessibility and broad applicability, which makes it particularly useful in situations where large populations are responding to stressful circumstances.

“Psychological First Aid can be delivered by anyone, to anyone,” Nitza said. “It can include providing comfort, validating people’s thoughts and feelings, connecting them with support systems, providing timely and accurate information and reinforcing positive coping strategies. These efforts should be focused on removing barriers to natural recovery processes and promoting a sense of safety, calm, connectedness and hope.”

Nitza added that while the tools of Psychological First Aid can be helpful in many different types of situations, they are not a substitute for professional mental health care.

The trainers took time to remind us that before we can care for others, we must first manage our own stress. Nitza and Vermeulen suggested a variety of self-care strategies ranging from behaviors like meditation and exercise to a more concerted approach to stress inoculation, as ideas for maintaining resiliency in the face of unprecedented circumstances.

The IDMH has served for more than 15 years as a resource for care providers and trauma responders, providing trainings and direct response in deployments in Puerto Rico, Haiti, the Texas floodplain and Israel, among other sites, but they emphasized that the threat of COVID-19 presents a unique set of challenges.

“This is different from acute trauma,” Vermeulen said. “It’s a fluid situation with no clear boundaries, and that requires us to be flexible and adaptive on a day-to-day basis.”

Visit the Institute for Disaster Mental Health online for more information about their educational and trauma-response work, and stay up-to-date on the College’s response to COVID-19 at our Coronavirus Information Hub.