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How these trained first-responders saved 200 lives from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Joseph V. Zeidan, M.S, Mental Health Professional, Author

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What you will read about is how a handful of trained first-responders managed to save people from developing PTSD due to the Beirut Blast happened on August 4th, 2020, and what techniques they used so that you learn them yourself and perhaps save people from any unfortunate surprises that could harm their mental health.

These professionals were social workers and random people from the general public whom were trained by me to respond to one of the most devastating events in history, utilizing Psychological First Aid coped with cognitive behavioral therapy techniques and a humanistic approach to provide empathy and support to the victims of the tragedy.

Introduction

The date is August 4th, 2020. Beirut was completely devastated by the most horrific explosion that rendered half the capital incapacitated, and locals finding themselves in the worst possible life-changing predicament. Houses were destroyed, loved ones missing, and others disintegrated from the blast. It was a collective trauma for the whole country to witness a blast that was recorded as the 3rd biggest explosion in history.

Trauma & PTSD

Let’s start by giving a simple explanation to what trauma is and what is post-traumatic stress disorder.

By definition, a traumatic incident is an event that is registered in our brain as dangerous and potentially life-threatening. It’s good to point out that these types of incidents are not limited to war events or actual direct lethal events, but could develop from watching an incident or even hearing of it.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that develops at least after 1 month of the incident. It is a condition described by having constant nightmares, feeling as if the event is happening again in the present, and an immense form of fear where everything around us becomes dangerous. PTSD affects every aspect of our daily functions, and if left unchecked, can manifest into more severe issues.

Now here’s the most important question to ask: can we reduce the possibility of PTSD to victims? Catch it before it infects us?

How one incident can destroy everything that feels safe

We all spend most of our lives building routines. Routines give us a sense of security and structure. It makes us feel like everything is under control. Part of that routine is the environment we live in, the type of people we keep around, and the streets & shops we visit daily.

Imagine a sudden incident would take away your environment, or one incident would take away a loved one or even wipe out the existence of your favorite restaurant. That’s how trauma develops.

Trauma is the moment where the structure you’ve built that helps you feel in control and safe, falls apart instantly. Your mind doesn’t comprehend the surprising devastation because to it, everything we built cannot be undone.

Coming to a realization that anything can happen and take away your sense of control can be demonizing to your mental health. What is safe then? Is it an illusion? Will I always live in this sense of uncertainty?

And so, we start to slide into the rabbit hole of trauma.

The rapid steps of intervention

The model of the Psychological first aid was developed by the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (NC-PTSD), a section of the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, in 2006. Since then, PFA has been modified and developed to an amazing model that has proven its necessity in today’s worldwide chaos.

The moment the Beirut blast happened; everyone went down to help. You can see people charging into the rubble trying to save those that can’t walk, or trying to drag out the bodies of the victims. At that point, mental health mobility was essential.

As we were on the ground doing what we can, I started to develop the needed volunteers for the mental health plan to save those survivors from potential PTSD.

The first 2 weeks of the incident are crucial, and so it is critical to provide the needed mental health support. And so, the 1st 3 days after the incident was when I started training volunteers on mental health support and psychological first aid.

The intervention is based on the 3 L’s: Look, Listen, Link. And this is how we used the techniques on the ground.

The moment we went back to visit the victims in the hospitals, we first assessed the situation. We looked around to see what services are present, as well as a first glimpse of the needs of the population. Establishing this information leads us to the 2nd and most crucial step. We approached one victim after the other, introduced ourselves, and asked them what they remember from the incident. This is a simple question that contains critical information. The victim has 2 potential answers: Either they can’t remember anything, or they remember the incident perfectly. Our concern is the 1st option, because the first symptom from trauma is memory loss. It is your brain’s defense mechanism to protect itself from harmful moments, and so blocks it away, while that memory keeps affecting all aspects of the mind like a virus. 

If the victim has bad memories, we would provide them with details of what happened to try to stimulate the conversation. The key is expression.

Here’s the most interesting question to ask: Have you ever went through an emotion close to the feeling you had when the explosion happened? For instance, one victim compared the feeling to when she lost a loved one, and we followed up by asking “How did you cope with that back then?” As they think about the support and the ways they used to deal with it, that provides them with the proof that they can overcome the feeling they are going through now.

As the last phase of linking them to the needed services happen, this simple conversation pulls our mind away from slipping into the darkness of trauma.

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