Information Gathering: Needs and Current Concerns


To identify immediate needs and concerns, gather additional information, and tailor Psychological First Aid interventions.

You should be flexible in providing Psychological First Aid, and should adapt interventions for specific individuals, and their identified needs and concerns. Gather enough information so that you can tailor and prioritize your interventions to meet these needs. Gathering and clarifying information begins immediately after contact and continues throughout Psychological First Aid.

Remember that in most Psychological First Aid settings, your ability to gather information will be limited by time, survivors’ needs and priorities, and other factors. Although a formal assessment is not appropriate, you may ask about:

  • Need for immediate referral
  • Need for additional services
  • Offering a follow-up meeting
  • Using components of Psychological First Aid that may be helpful

The form, Survivor Current Needs (Appendix D), may be helpful in documenting the basic information gathered from survivors. Likewise, the Psychological First Aid Provider Worksheet (Appendix D) may be useful in documenting services provided. These forms are designed for use within an incident command system for evaluation purposes, and where there are proper safeguards for confidentiality.

It may be especially useful for you to ask some questions to clarify the following:

Nature and Severity of Experiences during the Disaster

Survivors who experienced direct life-threat to self or loved ones, injury to self, or those who witnessed injury or death are at increased risk for more severe and prolonged distress. Those who felt extremely terrified and helpless may also have more difficulty in recovering. For information about the survivor’s experiences, you may ask:

  • You’ve been through a lot of difficult things. May I ask you some questions about what you have been through?
  • Where were you during the disaster?
  • Did you get hurt?
  • Did you see anyone get hurt?
  • How afraid were you?

Provider Alert: In clarifying disaster-related traumatic experiences, avoid asking for in-depth descriptions that may provoke additional distress. Follow the survivor’s lead in discussing what happened. Don’t press survivors to disclose details of any trauma or loss. On the other hand, if they are anxious to talk about their experiences, politely and respectfully tell them that what would be most helpful now is to get some basic information so that you can help with their current needs, and plan for future care. Let them know that the opportunity to discuss their experiences in a proper setting can be arranged for the future.

Death of a Loved One

The death of loved ones under traumatic circumstances is devastating, and over time can greatly complicate the grieving process. Ask about the death of loved ones with a question like:

  • Did someone close to you get hurt or die as a result of the disaster? Who got hurt or died?

For those who experienced the death of a loved one, provide emotional comfort, information about coping, social support, and acute grief, and offer a follow-up meeting.

Concerns about Immediate Post-Disaster Circumstances and Ongoing Threat

Survivors may be highly concerned about immediate and ongoing danger. You may ask questions like:

  • Do you need any information to help you better understand what has happened?
  • Do you need information about how to keep you and your family safe?
  • Do you need information about what is being done to protect the public?

For those with these concerns, help them obtain information about safety and protection.

Separation from or Concern about the Safety of Loved Ones

Separation from loved ones and concern about their safety is an additional source of distress. If not addressed earlier, get information with questions like these:

  • Are you worried about anyone close to you right now?
  • Do you know where they are?
  • Is there anyone especially important like a family member or friend who is missing?

For survivors with these concerns, provide practical assistance in connecting them with available information sources and registries that can help locate and reunite family members. See Safety and Comfort and Connection with Social Supports.

Physical Illness, Mental Health Conditions, and Need for Medications

Pre-existing medical or mental heath conditions and need for medications are additional sources of post-disaster distress. Those with a history of psychological problems may experience a worsening of these problems, as well as more severe and prolonged postdisaster reactions. Give a high priority to immediate medical and mental health concerns. Ask questions like:

  • Do you have any medical or mental health condition that needs attention?
  • Do you need any medications that you don’t have?
  • Do you need to have a prescription filled?
  • Can you get in touch with your doctor?

For those with medical or mental health conditions, provide practical assistance in obtaining medical or psychological care and medication.

Losses (Home, School, Neighborhood, Business, Personal Property, and Pets)

If survivors have extensive material losses and post-disaster adversities, their recovery may be complicated with feelings of depression, demoralization, and hopelessness. For information about such loss, ask questions like:

  • Was your home badly damaged or destroyed?
  • Did you lose other important personal property?
  • Did a pet die or get lost?
  • Was your business, school, or neighborhood badly damaged or destroyed?

For those with losses, provide emotional comfort, practical assistance to help link them with available resources, and information about coping and social support.

Extreme Feelings of Guilt or Shame

Extreme negative emotions can be very painful, difficult, and challenging, especially for children and adolescents. Children and adults may be ashamed to discuss these feelings. Listen carefully for signs of guilt or shame in their comments. To further clarify, you may say:

  • It sounds like you are being really hard on yourself about what happened.
  • It seems like you feel that you could have done more.

For those experiencing guilt or shame, provide emotional comfort and information about coping with these emotions. This can be found in the section, Information on Coping.

Thoughts about Causing Harm to Self or Others

It is a priority to get a sense of whether an individual is having thoughts about causing harm to self or others. To explore these thoughts and feelings, ask questions like:

  • Sometimes situations like these can be very overwhelming.
  • Have you had any thoughts about harming yourself?
  • Have you had any thoughts about harming someone else?

For those with these thoughts, get medical or mental health assistance immediately. If the survivor is at immediate risk of hurting themselves or others, stay with him/her until appropriate personnel arrive on the scene and assume management of the survivor.

Availability of Social Support

Family, friends, and community support can greatly enhance the ability to cope with distress and post-disaster adversity. Ask about social support as follows:

  • Are there family members, friends, or community agencies that you can rely on for help with problems that you are facing as a result of the disaster?

For those lacking adequate social support, help them connect with available resources and services, provide information about coping and social support, and offer a follow-up meeting.

Provider Alert: In clarifying prior history of substance use, prior trauma and loss, and prior mental health problems, you should be sensitive to the immediate needs of the survivor, avoid asking for a history if not appropriate, and avoid asking for in-depth description. Give clear reasons for asking (for example, “Sometimes events like this can remind individuals of previous bad times . . .” “Sometimes individuals who use alcohol to cope with stress will notice an increase in drinking following an event such as this . . .”)

Prior Alcohol or Drug Use

Exposure to trauma and post-disaster adversities can increase substance use, cause relapse of past substance abuse, or lead to new abuse. Get information about this by asking:

Adult/Caregiver/ Adolescent
  • Has your use of alcohol, prescription medications, or drugs increased since the disaster?
  • Have you had any problems in the past with alcohol or drug use?
  • Are you currently experiencing withdrawal symptoms from drug use?

For those with potential substance use problems, provide information about coping and social support, link to appropriate services, and offer a follow-up meeting. For those with withdrawal symptoms, seek medical referral.

Prior Exposure to Trauma and Death of Loved Ones

Those with a history of exposure to trauma or death of loved ones may experience more severe and prolonged post-disaster reactions and a renewal of prior trauma and grief reactions. For information about prior trauma, ask:

  • Sometimes events like this can remind people of previous bad times. Have you ever been in a disaster before?
  • Has some other bad thing happened to you in the past?
  • Have you ever had someone close to you die?

For those with prior exposure and/or loss, provide information about post-disaster and grief reactions, information about coping and social support, and offer a follow-up meeting.

Specific Youth, Adult, and Family Concerns over Developmental Impact

Survivors can be very upset when the disaster or its aftermath interferes with upcoming special events, including important developmental activities (for example, birthdays, graduation, start of school or college, marriage, vacation). For information about this, ask:

  • Were there any special events coming up that were disrupted by the disaster?

For those with developmental concerns, provide information about coping and assist with strategies for practical help.

It is also useful to ask a general open-ended question to make sure that you have not missed any important information.

  • Is there anything else we have not covered that you are concerned about or want to share with me?

If the survivor identifies multiple concerns, summarize these and help to identify which issues are most pressing. Work with the survivor to prioritize the order in which concerns should be addressed.


Last updated: April 8, 2020