Delving into the police mindset post-siege
A TRAGIC outcome from a siege or self-harm situation can have a serious impact on the mindset of frontline police despite extensive training, according to a Southern Cross University psychology lecturer.
US-born Dr James Donnelly has debriefed police, hostages and family members connected to often tragic siege situations in his work as a psychologist in California and Tennessee.
In severe cases, Dr Donnelly said the psychological fallout could easily result in extended periods away from police duties, or retirement from post-traumatic stress disorder.
During a crisis, he said police need to operate with the belief that if they could help get the person through the crisis and get them some help, “they won’t be wasting a life by taking their life”.
But to protect their own well-being, they equally needed to be psychologically prepared for a tragic outcome.
“On one hand you have to consider that things can happen that are truly just beyond your control,” Dr Donnelly explained.
“Going into that you have to accept that that’s a real possibility… that the person may kill themselves or even hurt others despite your best effort.
“So even if you do everything right, according to the book, if you’re dealing with someone who is severely mentally ill or is severely anti-social they may do what they feel compelled to do anyway.
“So... you have to understand that there are limits to the amount of control you have over that situation.
“In some cases that is very different to how you would like the world to be.
“That in itself can be difficult to deal with, because it makes you face the limited amount of control you actually have in your life in general, but more specifically in dealing with people who are willing to be violent.”
That is where psychological problems can arise for police officers and others who experience shock at the frontline.
Dr Donnelly said “the illusion of control” – the idea that if we do things effectively, we will be safe or successful – is something necessary to everyday human functioning in society .
“That’s the foundation for mental health and a sense of wellness… that I actually can do things to affect my environment and how those in my environment relate to me,” he explained.
So part of the recovery process for officers involved in such situations (which was heightened when innocent hostages were killed) was supporting them as they re-establish their feeling of self-efficacy.
“For people who have been victimised in crime… it shocks that foundation of safety and wellness and how the world operates,” he said.
“For people who are either police officers… and also for the family members… where they thought that they knew this person, they had a relationship with this person… that violation of how we hope to see the world is going to be predictable.”
Dr Donnelly said an alternative outcome for police is they respond with “a kind of callousness” as a defence mechanism.
“They can put up these walls, and say ‘we can trust nobody’, humanity is like that person… that ‘it doesn’t matter what I do, it doesn’t make any difference anyway’.
“It’s a defence strategy where you pull back, and say ‘ok, I’m going to keep my walls up.
“Your ability to interact with humans gets affected and your decision-making ability gets affected.
“If you see that kind of response it suggests that this person isn’t ready to return to the workforce yet either,” he said.