Psychological First-Aid: Stepping up to the Plate

June 25, 2021

with Brian Forbes, PhD, R.Psych.
Forbes Psychological Services

Several years ago, a group of lawyers in the province of Alberta spearheaded by (retired) Judge Philp took it upon themselves to become proactive in helping lawyers who were experiencing difficulties with addictions. Out of this movement of lawyers helping lawyers, the Lawyers’ Assist program evolved which now offers a professional counselling service for a variety of mental health issues, including addictions, as well as a peer support component.

This group of lawyers, who pioneered the Lawyers’ Assist program, chose not to stand by and take no action when they knew of a lawyer that was in distress. Taking action to assist the lawyer who is experiencing a mental health problem is the first step in providing Psychological First-Aid (PFA), a non-therapeutic approach to helping someone who is stressed or distressed. In essence, the group of lawyers who decided to step up to help other lawyers were providing PFA. Stepping up not only lets the distressed lawyer know that someone has noticed their difficulty, but also that somebody cares.

PFA is an evidence-based intervention designed to reduce an individual’s level of stress or distress and to foster short and long-term adaptive functioning and coping. It is a supportive intervention designed to help the individual help themselves.

In providing PFA, you want to create a sense of safety, create calm (speak and act calmly), help them overcome the feeling of helplessness, help the person help themselves and create hope. To this end, PFA is comprised of a number of care-helping activities including:

    • contact and engagement,
    • safety and comfort,
    • stabilization,
    • information gathering; practical assistance,
    • providing links to social supports and
    • links to counselling services.

The three action principles of PFA are look, listen and link. PFA is a way to approach someone in distress, assess what they need, and help the person to obtain that help. Help is available through the Lawyers’ Assist Professional Counselling Services at 1.877.498.6898 or the Lawyers’ Assist Peer Support program at 1.877.737.5508.

PFA is particularly relevant in June, Canadian Men’s Mental Health Month.

The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) refers to men’s mental health as the “silent crisis”. Even though mental health problems are common – affecting 20 per cent of the population every year and 50 per cent of people by the age of 40 – research has shown that about 70 per cent of distressed individuals do not seek help, particularly men. This raises the question as to why? Several factors appear to play a role in preventing men from seeking help for mental health issues including societal expectations, stigma and discrimination. Men are raised to be stoic, rather than to talk about their feelings or show vulnerability. As a result, they are less likely to seek help, and suffer in silence or turn to destructive coping strategies such as substance abuse.

In addition to the stigma that mental health issues represent weakness, men are also concerned about how stigma could impact their career and prospects. According to a 2019 Movember survey, 28 per cent of Canadian men fear that their job could be at risk if they discussed their mental health at work and 33 per cent thought that they could lose a promotion at work if they mentioned that they had a mental health problem or difficulty coping with the job demands.

In June, or at any time of year, we can all help to counteract stigma by stepping up to help the stressed or distressed friend or colleague and let them know what you have noticed and that you are there to support them. This can be accomplished by PFA.