A systematic literature search on psychological first aid: lack of evidence to develop guidelines

PLoS One. 2014 Dec 12;9(12):e114714. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0114714. eCollection 2014.


Background: Providing psychological first aid (PFA) is generally considered to be an important element in preliminary care of disaster victims. Using the best available scientific basis for courses and educational materials, the Belgian Red Cross-Flanders wants to ensure that its volunteers are trained in the best way possible.

Objective: To identify effective PFA practices, by systematically reviewing the evidence in existing guidelines, systematic reviews and individual studies.

Methods: Systematic literature searches in five bibliographic databases (MEDLINE, PsycINFO, The Cochrane Library, PILOTS and G-I-N) were conducted from inception to July 2013.

Results: Five practice guidelines were included which were found to vary in the development process (AGREE II score 20-53%) and evidence base used. None of them provides solid evidence concerning the effectiveness of PFA practices. Additionally, two systematic reviews of PFA were found, both noting a lack of studies on PFA. A complementary search for individual studies, using a more sensitive search strategy, identified 11 237 references of which 102 were included for further full-text examination, none of which ultimately provides solid evidence concerning the effectiveness of PFA practices.

Conclusion: The scientific literature on psychological first aid available to date, does not provide any evidence about the effectiveness of PFA interventions. Currently it is impossible to make evidence-based guidelines about which practices in psychosocial support are most effective to help disaster and trauma victims.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Disasters
  • Evidence-Based Medicine
  • First Aid / methods*
  • Humans
  • Mental Disorders / therapy*
  • Practice Guidelines as Topic*

Grant support

All authors are employees at the Belgian Red Cross-Flanders and receive no other funding. The authors have declared that no other support exist from any organization, other than the Belgian Red Cross-Flanders, for the submitted work. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.