UNIMAK Presents Psychological First Aid (PFA) Research Findings

By Corresponent Matthew Kanu..

The University of Makeni Mental Health Program is presently presenting the findings of Psychological First Aid (PFA) research conducted during a study in Port Loko District, Western Urban, Western Rural, Kenema District and Kailahun District.

Director of the University of Makeni Mental Health Program, Dr. Rebecca Esliker, explained in an interview that the Psychological First Aid (PFA) Research was conducted in collaboration with the War Trauma Foundation, the Free University in the Netherlands, Queen Margaret University in the UK, and John Snow Institute (JSI) in Sierra Leone. She mentioned that the PFA is an important tool and is a Field Guide that covers psychological first aid, which involves humane, supportive and practical help to fellow human beings suffering serious crisis events. It is written for people in a position to help others who have experienced an extremely distressing event. It gives a framework for supporting people in ways that respect their dignity, culture and abilities. The World Health Organization (WHO), War Trauma Foundation and World Vision International, developed this field guide. The guide is an evidence-informed modular approach for assisting people in the immediate aftermath of disaster and crisis to reduce initial distress and to foster short and long-term adaptive functioning. Non-mental health experts, such as responders and volunteers, used it. 

During the Ebola Crisis, people from NGOs and the health care sector have been trained in Psychological First Aid. After the Ebola Crisis the Ministry of Health and Sanitation in collaboration with WHO and other partners embarked on a PFA roll-out to all health sectors in the country in preparedness for the event of another disaster. The guide was very useful during last year’s mudslide.

The now concluded research study aimed to find out whether PFA strengthens the capacity for the provision of effective support to acutely distressed beneficiaries in the context of humanitarian crisis. It consisted of two phases: Phase one was a qualitative interview study, looking back at how PFA was used during the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone and Liberia. Phase two was a randomized controlled trial to understand how training in PFA affects the skills, knowledge and behavior of health care workers in six Districts of Sierra Leone (Western Urban, Western Rural, Kailahun, Kenema, Bombali & Port Loko).

A total of 408 health care workers in 6 districts participated in this study. These are few examples of what some participants shared of what they learned from the training. A participant in Western Urban, Juliana Karimu, said she learned a lot during the presentation of the report. She emphasized that her attitude towards her patients in her PHU centre will be more positive because of the new communication skills she learned from the training. She added “the report will help us to understand our position and responsibilities in ensuring we live a healthy life.”

Community Health Centre nurse Susan A Sesay was a participant from Makeni who attended the PFA training. She, like most people who attended the session, agreed that they have a role to play as medical practitioners to ensure behavioral change from the people and ensure there is more information from the community about how to provide basic psychosocial support and where to seek mental health treatment if needed for referral.

The findings summary report shows an increase in knowledge of how to respond to a person in distress as compared to those who did not participate, give more appropriate response to hypothetical scenarios compared to those who did not participate. These findings also indicate that participating in PFA training increases understanding of helpful ways to respond to someone who is in distress. The study assesses knowledge not behaviour. So the researchers cannot be sure that those who were trained actually used these skills.

The results of the research have been shared at national and district level in Sierra Leone, will be presented at conferences on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS) and humanitarian studies and will be published in international journals.

Here in Sierra Leone, the Mental Health Gap exists but implementation of the PFA Research and training as well as advocacy for strengthening mental health care and psychosocial support in collaboration with the government and non-governmental and health care organizations is a good step in the right direction.

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