Cultivating Compassion with Red Cross Psychological First Aid Training

By CC McGraw, Red Cross Volunteer

Once COVID-19 reached the United States and everything began to shut down, it was hard to grasp the severity of this whole thing. As an athlete at the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, our spring season was canceled completely, and we were immediately moved off campus and forced to complete the rest of the semester online.

Inevitably, this was a big change for all of the athletes, especially since we had grown so used to having such crazy hectic schedules and nonstop training. This was heartbreaking to say the least, but our athletics department prioritized our mental health and stress levels by taking certain initiatives of providing access to meditation apps and ensuring we were staying connected with our teams via Zoom.

CC McGraw, UMN Gopher Volleyball (photo provided by CC)

For me, those efforts were a kind of psychological first aid, a bandage for mental health. Like a good bandage, psych first aid brings mental health stability during emergencies, especially during disasters. Psych first aid mitigates acute distress and serves as a bridge to continued support and care if necessary.

Whatever the case may be, it’s always important that those affected by a disaster are provided with empathetic and practical psychological support. This begins with a strong, compassionate, and supportive presence by an American Red Cross volunteer. But it can also begin with you, now at home, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

To help, the Red Cross is offering online psych first aid training for free. I recently completed the training, and I realize the necessity for it now more than ever. Emotional distress is not always as visible as a physical injury, and yet it has the power to be just as painful and debilitating.

After going through a life-altering experience and traumatic event, it’s very common to be affected emotionally. Psych first aid is simply a strategy to reduce the wide range of painful emotions experienced by those with high volumes of stress.

Tips from the American Red Cross online psychological first aid training course

The training touches on the vast range of stress reactions which can be manifested in thoughts, feelings, behaviors, physical effects, and spiritual beliefs. It informs us of the many contributing factors to stress reactions and the role that they play in the distress of the individual. More importantly, it raises awareness on how to analyze the situation, then describes how to approach it accordingly.

There are a variety of actions you can take depending on the situation. However, the training provides twelve main components that you should consistently try to follow. Now that I have them, I feel a new confidence and awareness in order to approach and help those affected.

I’ve found that this training benefits my ability to aid individuals in a more compassionate and supportive way, as well as use this new knowledge to support my family, friends, and others in my community. It’s a tool we can all use to reduce our own stress levels, by simply understanding our reactions to different forms of stress and then applying the principles of psych first aid to enhance our resilience to those stressors.

I recently completed the training, and I realize the necessity for it now more than ever. Emotional distress is not always as visible as a physical injury, and yet it has the power to be just as painful and debilitating.

Of course, I continue to have my worries and doubts with all of the uncertainty that stems from COVID-19, but I also understand that this pandemic is affecting every single person in the world, in some form or another.

Regardless of the circumstance, people are having to sort out their stressors and stress reactions in order to maintain their mental health in quarantine, so this is another reason why the free and online psych first aid course from the Red Cross is so beneficial. It provides you with many forms of stress reactions, stressors, and how to manage your stress in a healthy manner.

I’ve also found that to effectively help and support those around you, you should feel confident that your mental health and stress levels are intact as well.

What’s it like to be a refugee?

This September 9-11, the Red Cross will be taking part in a humanitarian crisis simulation put on by the University of Minnesota. The goal of the weekend event is for participants to gain an understanding of the realities and difficulties facing humanitarian aid professionals and the people they serve. Volunteers, role-playing as refugees, doctors, United Nations Peacekeepers, and others, will transform a boy-scout camp in Cannon Falls, Minnesota into the scene of an international humanitarian crisis. Participants will encounter displaced refugees, outbreaks of disease, roving militias, and many multidisciplinary problems typical of humanitarian catastrophes.

University of Minnesota humanitarian crisis simulation course (Photo credit: UMN)
University of Minnesota humanitarian crisis simulation course (Photo credit: UMN)

Pj Doyle, a longtime Red Cross volunteer for the Minnesota Region, explains how the Red Cross’s involvement in the simulation helps the larger community: “As stewards of the Geneva Conventions, each national society is charged with disseminating information on International Humanitarian Law to citizens. This humanitarian simulation provides hands-on means for our chapter of the American Red Cross to fulfill this role.” Volunteers from the Minnesota Red Cross region will be role-playing as delegates from the International Committee of the Red Cross. During the simulation they will work on registering refugee role-players.

The simulation started in 2011 as a collaborative project co led by faculty in the Schools of Medicine and Public Affairs. Since then it has expanded to include the involvement of several different schools at the University of Minnesota and various NGOs, as well as the Minnesota National Guard. During the simulation, participants first attend didactic sessions that cover issues common to humanitarian catastrophes. Participants are then placed in multidisciplinary groups and act as emergency response teams. Throughout the weekend, these teams will assess various “camps” and “villages” as they assess problems such as malnutrition, security, and human rights violations. After their assessment, each team will develop a proposal for an intervention and present their solution to a board.

University of Minnesota humanitarian crisis simulation, 2015 (Photo credit: UMN)
University of Minnesota humanitarian crisis simulation, 2015 (Photo credit: UMN)

The course is a valuable learning experience for anyone who is interested in or currently pursuing a career in humanitarian aid work, as well as professionals currently working with former refugees. It is offered for a fee to adult participants from the community, and as a one credit graduate elective at the University of Minnesota. While the course places an emphasis on the public health aspects of humanitarian relief, the simulation provides an opportunity for anyone to develop and shape skills necessary for success in all areas of humanitarian work.

Photo credit: UMN
Photo credit: UMN

Both participants and volunteers are still needed and welcome for the simulation. Those interested in participating as a student or volunteering can learn more by emailing umnsim@umn.edu. To see more photos from the 2015 humanitarian simulation, click here.

Story by Adam Holte, American Red Cross Minnesota Region, International Services Intern