Strengthening Evidence for the Scaling of Psychological First Aid in Humanitarian Settings

This blog post by Rebecca Horn relates to the project ‘Strengthening Evidence for the Scaling of Psychological First Aid in Humanitarian Settings’, conducted by War Trauma Foundation, Queen Margaret University (UK), University of Makeni (Sierra Leone) and the LiCORMH (Liberia). The project explores the extent to which Psychological First Aid (PFA) strengthens the capacity for the provision of effective mental health and psychosocial support to acute distressed beneficiaries in the context of humanitarian crisis, specifically the ebola crisis in Sierra Leone and Liberia.

At this moment, a team of four research assistants in Sierra Leone are preparing to start interviewing people in Makeni about their experience of delivering and receiving training in Psychological First Aid during the ebola disease outbreak in 2014-2016. This follows a two-week period of training and supported data collection in Freetown with me, as the lead researcher for the project from Queen Margaret University in the UK, and with the country research coordinator, Dr. Rebecca Esliker (University of Makeni).

We first met as a team on Tuesday 13th September, and spent three days together learning the skills required for the project, and reviewing and revising the interview guides. On the Friday of that week, the four research assistants (working in pairs) conducted their first interviews and had their first experience of trying to transcribe, verbatim, from the recordings made of the interviews.

For some, this was a new experience, which fits well with the capacity building of this team. Although all the research assistants had been involved with research projects before, not all had conducted interviews, and three of the four had never transcribed interview data. So there was a lot to learn, but they learned quickly and received ongoing support from the two Dr. Rebeccas. One of the research assistants, Mamadu Jalloh, reflected on his learning experience:

‘I have never done a qualitative research project, and you feel somehow pressured that you have to put in all your efforts. But so far I think the skill that has been very useful is the listening skills, for you to be able to listen to your interviewee, to know what they’re saying so that you can be able to know how you should respond and what questions you should ask. And another one also is to make a friendly interviewing atmosphere, to make the person feel comfortable’.

The week after the training, the research assistants started their data collection in Freetown. They interviewed both those who had been trained to deliver training in PFA, and health care workers, teachers and social workers who had used PFA in their work during their ebola crisis. They travelled around the city to reach people, struggling with traffic and working long hours to not only conduct the interviews but also to transcribe them. Despite the challenges, the research assistants remained positive and were motivated by what they felt was the importance of the work, as Mamadu explained well:

‘This research is all about us coming together to modify or improve the PFA training that we have done, which could be used here in Sierra Leone, maybe somewhere else. And I feel very good to be part of a process like that’.

The research assistants were supervised throughout the data collection by Dr. Rebecca Esliker, who arranged the interviews and accompanied the research assistants to ensure that they connected with the trainer or provider successfully. Meanwhile, I conducted key informant interviews with Ministry officials and INGO staff in Freetown to try to understand more about how PFA fitted in to the overall ebola response in Sierra Leone, and how the use of PFA evolved over time.

Now the first stage is over, and I have left Sierra Leone to begin the same process in Liberia. However, the data collection continues in Makeni, then in Kenema and Bo. The research team still have a lot of work to do, but they are very motivated and energetic and I’m really looking forward to reading the results!

Picture: Dr. Rebecca Esliker (University of Makeni) supervising the four research assistants as they transcribe their interviews