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Even though each country has its own knowledge and beliefs, the critical component of psychological first aid remains the same: "Teach people to care for one another," says Gerard Jacobs, PhD, director of the Disaster Mental Health Institute at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion.

Jacobs has been coordinating APA's collaboration with relief efforts in the tsunami-affected regions of Southeast Asia. The initiatives have trained hundreds of community leaders and mental health professionals in disaster intervention. These leaders and professionals are now helping tens of thousands of people with depression, anxiety and other traumatic stress issues.

The first seeds of healing were planted with immediate "psychological first aid" in the weeks fol lowing the tsunami, but the training-and healing-will continue for many years, says Jacobs.

Neighbor to neighbor

Immediately after the tsunami, APA began a tsunami relief effort that included a $100,00 donation to the American Red Cross and the allocation of $150,000 in additional funds for ongoing tsunami-relief programs. The American Red Cross's international services used the $100,000 donation to help fund:

  • The deployment of three American Red Cross mental health teams from India to the Republic of Maldives and Sri Lanka, where they worked with the local Red Cross societies and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent on community-based psychosocial activities, such as psychological first aid, social gathering and community interaction.

  • The training of 368 Maldivian teachers to recognize signs of distress in children and adults.

  • Psychological first-aid training to Maldivian community leaders, such as health workers, traditional birth attendants, traditional healers and teachers.

"These people have now become the backbone of the long-term psychosocial support system in the country," says psychologist Joseph Prewitt Diaz, MD, PhD, senior functional adviser for psychosocial support programs for American Red Cross international services.

In addition to training professionals, the 68 mental health community facilitators deployed to the affected areas in the Maldives provided psychological first-aid to more than 14,000 adults and approximately 18,000 children, Diaz says. The American Red Cross has implemented similar programs in Sri Lanka and Indonesia, he says, and external support and training programs in the countries will continue for three to five years.

Strengthening trauma networks

Meanwhile, Jacobs continues to work with APA to implement programs that will meet tsunami survivors' ongoing needs. Recently he:

  • Spoke at a November follow-up session to the May International Union of Psychological Science workshop, "Building Psychosocial Interventions in the Tsunami Aftermath." The workshop and follow-up session were for psychologists from the most affected countries: Thailand, India, Indonesia and Sri Lanka. The May workshop was held with support from APA. The November workshop offered additional training and a chance for participants to seek problem-specific consultations from Jacobs and other experts.

  • Instructed at a weeklong "train-the-trainers" workshop last November in Chennai-the region of India most affected by the tsunami. APA sponsored the workshop in cooperation with India's National Academy of Psychology as part of the follow-up activities to the May workshop. Although India has a system of mental health professionals, its professionals don't have a lot of clinical training, says Jacobs. So, this workshop focused on disaster psychology.

  • Conducted traumatic stress training in a half-day training workshop held for members of the Indonesian Psychological Association in Jakarta, Indonesia, in December 2005.

  • Provided additional training for local mental health workers at weeklong workshops in Indonesia, Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

In the long term, experts such as Jacobs and Diaz will be available for further training and problem-solving, but they both note that the affected countries have embraced the training that they have received and are using it to build disaster-response networks and other mental health services.

Further Reading

To learn more about APA's ongoing tsunami efforts, visit the APA Disasters Web site.