Sunday, April 02, 2023 | Ramadan 10, 1444 H
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Are we equipped with a psychological first aid kit?


October 10th is World Mental Health Day. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the Covid-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on people’s mental health. Some groups, including health and other frontline workers, students, people living alone and those with pre-existing mental health conditions, have been particularly affected. Services for mental, neurological and substance use disorders have been significantly disrupted.

“Yet there is cause for optimism. During the World Health Assembly in May 2021, governments from around the world recognised the need to scale up quality mental health services at all levels. And some countries have found new ways of providing mental healthcare to their populations’’, WHO stated.

This year the campaign slogan is, “mental healthcare for all: let’s make it a reality.”

For Oman, this day also looks at another reality — it is exactly a week since cyclone Shaheen chose its track and made landfall resulting in deadly flash floods in North Al Batinah. The rampaging flood destroyed everything that stood in its path. In its aftermath, rescue operators and the public took the next step forward, and that was to bring back life to normalcy but practising patience meant waiting for the water to go and bringing out of home everything that was ruined by water. But there should have been something that was invisible to be out into use: the psychological first aid kit.

One group of the society that was also facing the cyclone was the children. But when the sun came out of the clouds, the children came out too to look at the next best way to make use of the situation and make the day enjoyable. They took to the newfound toys — metal sheets to float and go for a joy ride while adults went their way to clean the debris and mud out of the way. Some of the youngsters joined in the cleaning with their own little shovels.

Then there were other young ones who were organising parcels to be distributed to families that were hit by the tropical condition. They ran to receive the supplies from the armed forces of Oman as they arrived in helicopters and trucks.

If there was shock at the impact of what was left behind by the cyclone and the loss it incurred, the young ones fluttered around with smiles spreading joy and hope. Social media captured the moments, and the images went viral.

By no means have the trauma the families were going through been little as family members had gone missing, houses had been swept away, vehicles submerged and many dreams probably have been washed away too.

So what is that we can learn from the children?

According to Dr Hamed al Sinawi, Senior Psychiatrist at Sultan Qaboos University Hospital, “Psychological studies have proven that because children’s brains are developing rapidly, they are more resilient, which means they are able to bounce back quicker than an adult; they are able to learn skills and cope at a quicker rate. Another factor is that kids do not know a lot about the world really, and this works in their favour.”

He gave the example of another adverse weather condition Oman experienced and its psychological impact on people, “For example, when cyclone Shaheen hit parts of Oman, many of us recalled that happened in 2007 when cyclone Gonu hit many parts of Oman and destroyed houses and other properties and killed people. Our adult brains retrieved those memories and put us in a state of high alert. This can be useful to some degree as it makes us plan more and take precautions, but at the same time it can be counterproductive and overwhelming as excessive worrying can create a state of anxiety.”

Dr Hamed said that during natural disasters like cyclones and earthquakes, it is important to provide psychological first aid along with practical help such as food, water and shelter.

When we talk about first aid we immediately think about physical wounds and medicines, but very little is known or even practised when it comes to mental health while going through calamities.

According to Dr Hamed, it is important for people to learn more about psychological first aid and learn more about how to support each other.

“But the focus has to be on protecting people from further harm, allowing them to talk without pressure, expressing compassion, acknowledging their concerns and discussing coping strategies. People with mental health challenges must be advised to seek professional advice from a Psychiatrist or psychologist’’, explained Dr Hamed.

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