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Cindy Firestein, Simmons University

Cindy Firestein.jpgOccasionally, students enter their advising session with personal baggage to share with their advisor that detours the conversation away from the normal advising issues such as major selection or building their spring schedule. Tara Sagor, who is the Director of Training and Trauma at the Justice Resource Institute in Boston, MA, recently facilitated a training titled “Building Resilience with Psychological First Aid and Self Care” (Sagor, personal communication, September 24, 2018). The Justice Resource Institute strives to serve the needs of underserved individuals, families, and communities with compassion and dignity (Justice Resource Institute, n.d.).  

Tara Sagor’s training is beneficial to the work academic advisors do to support students. The following section pulls from Sagor’s presentation and other resources in a digestible way that is designed to support advisors in helping students who could benefit from psychological first aid techniques and practice ways to implement self-care. It incorporates resources which can be added to an advisor’s tool-kit when striving to help a student overcome a traumatically challenging situation before making a referral to another support resource on or off campus.

Psychological first aid comes from disaster mental health counseling. Disaster mental health is widely recognized as an essential component of comprehensive disaster response (Dailey & LaFauci Schutt, 2018). It allows responders/supporters to understand the effect of a traumatic event on an individual while providing in the moment support to survivors such as individuals who survived the deadly category four Hurricane Maria in 2017 that made landfall in Puerto Rico and resulted in approximately 2,975 excess deaths (Newkirk, 2018). This technique can also be used when speaking with a student confiding in their advisor the traumatic information that they were date raped over the weekend.

Psychological trauma is the unique individual experience of an event or enduring conditions in which:

  • the individual’s ability to integrate his/her emotional experience is overwhelmed, or
  • the individual experiences (subjectively) a threat to life, bodily integrity, or sanity
    (Pearlman & Saakvitne, 1995, p. 60).

This is a topic advisors should strive to be aware of because of the rapport they develop with students early on in the student’s academic career. Advisors maybe the first line of support for students and need to understand how to notice the telltale signs of a student in distress. Knowing how to approach a student during a session or around campus to help them obtain the necessary support they need to feel safe at that moment is very important when practicing psychological first aid and advocating for a student to exercise self-care.

In her training, Tara Sagor mentions several reasons why this topic needs to be talked about:

  • All individuals are surrounded by trauma and either directly or indirectly impacted by exposure, which significantly changes the needs of students in the classroom.
  • As advisors, we need to understand how stress/trauma impacts our students so we can explain it to them in a language they can understand, normalize their responses, and help them feel safe.
  • As experiences of trauma ourselves, we also need to understand what is happening in our own bodies so we can recognize signs of vicarious trauma/burnout.

There are many different situations that can be traumatic for a student or any individual such as: 

  • the loss of a loved one,
  • an accident,
  • self-harm,
  • racial harassment,
  • gender-based discrimination,
  • a natural disaster,
  • bullying,
  • rape and/or domestic abuse,
  • financial situations,
  • international/global crimes, and
  • disease.

Advisors work with traumatized students. There is no way to know when a student will break down and open up during an advising session. Neurophysiology is a big part of understanding psychological first aid. When someone suffers a traumatic event, their frontal lobe ceases to function correctly. The student may be unable to make a simple decision and have an emotional breakdown during the advising session. For example, when an advisor asks the student a question about which science course they want to take next spring, it could trigger the student to burst into tears and begin sharing about their traumatic event during the advising session. Experiencing a traumatic event affects learning as well as development for individuals.  

Students affected by a traumatic event will not mentally or emotionally recover in the same way. Some may have shattered assumptions. For instance, a friendly and outgoing student who was recently date raped may be less interested in dating, choose to avoid going out, or may come across as emotionally withdrawn. This student’s awareness of danger is now heighted. This student’s original reality of going on a date has been shattered by this experience, and now their new reality is forever altered.

When an individual supports a traumatized student by utilizing psychological first aid, they are working to help the student feel safe and comfortable in the moment. This will help the student feel less threatened, cope with the situation, and begin to feel safer. If an advisor is meeting with a student in their office, they can ensure the student they are in a safe space. However, an individual should never make a promise that they cannot guarantee. Even if the student is currently safe in the office, they cannot remain in the office forever. Observe the student’s physical and emotional state before offering to walk the student to their next class or to another support resource on campus that can continue to help the student overcome their traumatic event.

As advisors, it is important to be knowledgeable of the resources our institutions provide to students.  Simmons University in Boston, MA offers students many support resources they can turn to for help when faced with a traumatic event. Some of these resources include the Counseling Center, RAD (rape, aggression, and defense) training, Accessibility Resources, Campus Police, a Health Center, Violence Prevention and Educational Outreach, as well as Student Life. These resources offer one-on-one support for students. To help your team become familiar with campus resources, consider inviting a representative from different campus support resources to a staff meeting to provide an overview of their services for students.

When practicing psychological first aid, it is important to note that it is not the advisor’s responsibility to get the full story of the traumatic event. At that moment, it is the advisor’s responsibility to be the support person in that student’s life, to help the student get to a mental and emotional place where they feel safe and comfortable. Asking if there is anything we can get them like a glass of water, box of tissues, or a blanket or checking to see if there is anyone we can call that will help comfort them such as a roommate or close friend they trust can make students more comfortable. Giving them realistic options is helpful. Asking the student an open-ended question such as, “What can I do to help you feel more comfortable?” may create more difficulties if we are unable to provide the student with what they requested.

To support a student who has recently experienced a traumatic event, their safety and comfort should be our top priority.  By using psychological first aid’s eight core action steps (About PFA, 2018) advisors can ensure the student is supported and their initial stress is reduced while helping the student develop a sense of safety.    

  • Contact and Engagement
  • Safety and Comfort
  • Stabilization (if needed)
  • Information Gathering
  • Practical Assistance
  • Connecting with Social Supports
  • Information on Coping
  • Lineage with Collaborative Services

If a student comes across with too much stress-related energy, an advisor can help them to calm themselves down by recommended breathing exercises. There are many apps that focus on helping individuals with breathing exercises. By purposefully changing the way a student breathes, the student can change the way they feel and how their body reacts to what is going on around them. Using breathing exercises sends a signal to the body’s nervous system, the part of the body that manages heart rate and stress response, which says that things are okay. In turn, the physical effects of anxiety—racing heartbeat, shallow breathing, sweaty palms—are reduced, and the mind calms down (Munoz, 2017).

Other methods can be to help distract the person by asking them simple questions to focus on something else. Offer to remove them from the situation to bring them to a safer location such as an office or the counseling center. As mentioned earlier, ask if there is a friend or roommate you can call as an added support person.

Always remember when practicing psychological first aid, it is about helping the student feel safe and secure in the moment after they have experienced a traumatizing event or after disclosing a traumatizing event to their advisor. The advising session needs to go on the back burner to focus on the student’s safety, wellbeing, and mental health. Self-care is ongoing. Practicing breathing exercises is an easy-to-use method that can help someone relax and feel grounded. Individuals can also try other ways that work best for them such as taking a warm bath, coloring, volunteering, listening to music, pleasure reading, or exercising. Having a trustworthy support person to speak with such as a family member, best-friend, or counselor should also be encouraged.

For more information on psychological first aid, utilize these resources:

Cindy Firestein, M.Ed., GCDF
Director of Undergraduate Advising
Simmons University
[email protected]


About PFA. (2018, March 29). Retrieved from https://www.nctsn.org/treatments-and-practices/psychological-first-aid-and-skills-for-psychological-recovery/about-pfa

Dailey, S. F., & LaFauci Schutt, J. M. (2018, January). Disaster mental health: Ethical issues for counselors. Disaster Mental Health Counseling,16–18. Retrieved from ct.counseling.org

Justice Resource Institute. (n.d.). Home. Retrieved from https://jri.org/

Munoz, K. (2017, March 31). 5 breathing exercises to reduce stress & improve sleep. Retrieved from https://draxe.com/breathing-exercises/

Newkirk, V. R., II. (2018, August 29). A year after Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico finally knows how many people died. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2018/08/puerto-rico-death-toll-hurricane-maria/568822/

Pearlman, L. A., & Saakvitne, K. W. (1995). Trauma and the therapist. New York, NY: Norton.

Sagor, T. (2018). Building resilience with psychological first aid and self-care. Boston, MA: Justice Resources Institute. Workshop, personal communication.

Cite this article using APA style as: Firestein, C. (2019, June). Advising students who struggle due to traumatic events. Academic Advising Today, 42(2). Retrieved from [insert url here] 

Posted in: 2019 June 42:2


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