15 Dec 2020

Psychological First Aid Training: Benefits for Public Safety

By Stephen J. Sampson, Ph.D.

Psychological First Aid (PFA) has long been used as a means of assisting people who face traumatic situations, namely disasters or other significant tragedies (e. g., 9/11). Mental health professionals and first responders can employ PFA skills by assessing “victims’” immediate needs (food, clothing, shelter, communicating with family) and providing empathetic support.

In general, those who are exposed to traumatic events will not require long-term, formal psychological intervention.

Casting A Wider Net with PFA

The kind of PFA described above is intended for unique sets of circumstances. Current societal changes, influenced by rapidly-changing technologies and media, as well as a marked increase in the population of mentally and emotionally distressed persons, present the need for a broader kind of PFA.

Though most of the population can count on living longer thanks to improved medical technologies, it cannot necessarily be said those same people are living better. A person’s mental health must be considered apart from his or her physical health, though one can invariably have great influence over the other.

The fact is that improved mental and emotional health technologies are not on pace with their physical technology counterparts. But practical training in and application of PFA methodologies could be the answer.

PFA, Mental Illness and Corrections

In terms of managing mentally and emotionally distressed persons, PFA involves the application of appropriate social and emotional behaviors that, in turn, promote physical, mental, and emotional health in others.

All humans require meaningful relationships with other humans. Such relationships represent an essential need that is hard-wired in our brains. When individuals lack strong, healthy relationships or social networks built on commitment and mutual respect, they are more likely to falter in a multitude of ways, including substance abuse, financial difficulties and suicide. Ultimately, these personal failures can snowball, leading to significant mentally and/or emotionally distressed behaviors.

The literature has established the notion that each year, more and more adults enter jail systems with active signs of mental illness. A previous blog post posed the question: “are prisons becoming our 21st century mental health institutions?” Though a definitive answer is debatable, the data reflect an unmistakable trend.

If more and more incoming prisoners display signs of mental distress, the next question to be addressed should be: what tools and training do correctional officers and other jail staff need to effectively and appropriately manage their inmate populations? Another question to be considered is: how can the day-to-day stressors properly trained correctional officers and other jail staff face be managed so as to maintain and/or improve retention and morale?

The answer to both questions could be remarkably simple: the PFA framework can provide jail staff the tools they need to manage mentally distressed individuals, but it also provides a means for staff to be successful in their employment.

PFA Tools & Training: Case Studies in Improvement

Two studies show promising outcomes for the implementation of PFA training, both in terms of positive impact on patients/prisoners and positive impact on practitioners/correctional officers. The first study, conducted at Georgia Regional Hospital in Atlanta in 1990, sought to discover whether intense empathetic communications skills training would improve patient management outcomes and alleviate staff burnout (Smoot & Gonzales, 1995).

One unit was established as the control and did not receive the training. The trained unit took part in 32 hours of training divided among several training components. Components included instructor-led presentations, videotape and instructor modeling and role-playing. The primary skill taught during these sessions was “accurate empathy,” where trainees reflected the speaker’s message back to the speaker. Trainees were also directed to face the speaker head-on and maintain eye contact, and they were also taught how to handle patient requests in a courteous manner.

The study’s results show that among the trained unit staff, patient complaints decreased, as did the need for patient restraint and seclusion. Just as significant was a decrease in the number of staff resignations and use of sick leave (Smoot & Gonzales, 1995).

The second study, conducted at the Broward County (Florida) Sheriff’s Office (BSO), utilized novel approaches to managing mentally distressed inmates. One approach involved assembling a “certified mental health team.” Correctional staff members who oversaw the Mental Health Unit received additional certification training over and above their initial certification. They then underwent an additional 40 hours of advanced mental health training.

The trainees were shown how to improve their interaction skills with inmates by gaining an awareness of social, emotional and organizational intelligence. After BSO implemented this training, the unit saw a marked decrease in violent incidents and behavioral issues, as well as improved performance and morale among its staff (McPherson, 2008).

Conclusion: PFA Training Helps

The fact that the training in both studies, while years apart, centered on communication skills and empathetic listening, is not coincidental. Given the challenges that all correctional facilities and their staffs will face in the not-so-distant future, now is the time to act. PFA is the answer for managing those with mental and emotional disorders, and it is the answer for maintaining morale and retaining corrections professionals.

Want to Learn More?
To find out how our company approaches these challenges with our clients, contact Sampson at info@sampsonpsychtesting.com. Or, read more about our flagship training, Applied Social Intelligence.

About the Author

Stephen J. Sampson, Ph.D. has been teaching social intelligence, conflict resolution and interpersonal skills for over 40 years. He brings both academic knowledge and practical experience to his seminars.



McPherson, W. (2008).”Managing the mental health population at the Broward Sheriff’s Office.Corrections Today, 70(3), 62-64,-66 to 67.

Smoot, S. L., & Gonzales, J. L. (1995).Cost-effective communication skill