A traumatized victim or witness may act in a very different way than before being traumatized. Correct understanding of the psychological trauma and its effects may be of great aid when working with traumatized people.
Who can be traumatized?
Anyone who has experienced something strong, surprising or painful can be traumatized as a consequence. Crimes and accidents may typically cause a trauma, and it is even possible to be traumatized by merely witnessing such an event.
What is a traumatic crisis?
A traumatic crisis is a powerful state of physical and psychological stress. A traumatic crisis causes the victim to act in different ways than he or she would normally act.
Ability to function under threatening circumstances
When threatened, humans act instinctively. The autonomic nervous system starts a defence mechanism, which can in some cases be a violent struggle, sometimes an attempt to escape. If the threat is too big, the person is paralysed and without ability to do anything whatsoever. The reason why the body reacts in this way is that it has to be able to do the thing most likely to save the life of the person when there is no time to think, and therefore this function cannot be changed. The nervous system decides in the blink of an eye what the body should do.
Memories of the event
Normally, events are recorded as memories that can be logically reconstructed afterwards. However, in a traumatic situation, the mind records only the details that have played an immediate role in saving the life of the victim. These memories are difficult to examine or describe with words. Therefore a traumatized person may not be able to form a complete description of the event.
A crime victim often feels guilt for the event. Blaming oneself is a way of suppressing the frightening feeling of total helplessness. The sooner the victim understands that he or she can be subjected to bad experiences without being able to influence them, the easier it is for him or her to recover from this emotional escape from reality.
Traumatic events affect people of different age in different ways. Traumas experienced in childhood or puberty may affect the growth and development of the individual, especially if not properly treated.
How the trauma affects one's life varies from person to person. Moreover, the effects of a single traumatic experience are different from those of a prolonged traumatic state.
Hannaleena Kuukari, psychotherapist, Tukinainen Rape Crisis Centre
Heli Heinjoki, crisis- and traumapsychotherapist (et), M.Soc.Sc., crisis work development manager, Tukinainen Rape Crisis Centre
Tips for the police
1. Before discussing the case with the victim, ask whether the victim prefers a male or a female interrogator. If possible, let the victim decide!
2. Begin by explaining to the victim that you may have to ask unpleasant questions since you need all kinds of information in order to conduct a neutral investigation.
3. Address the victim in a neutral, but polite and friendly way.
4. Reserve enough time for the discussion! This makes it easier for the victim to form a complete story of the events. Take a break if necessary.
5. Inform the victim about the right to get a free counsel for the court proceedings and a free support person. Make sure that the victim realizes this since a counsel and a support person can be of great help! You can, for example, give the victim a copy of the flyer about the topic included in the Senja folder.
6. Also mention that the interrogation can be postponed if the victim wishes to have a counsel, provided that it is not necessary to conduct the interrogation immediately in order to solve the case. The counsel is free of charge for all victims of sexual crime or domestic violence.
7. Inform the victim about how the victim's possible pleas for punishment for or compensation from the suspect may affect the right to get a free counsel for the court proceedings.
8. Help the victim to call for counselling and support organizations. Give him or her the list of organizations offering counselling and other help included in the Senja folder.
9. Take into account that a trauma affects the victim's memory and ability to function normally. To make sure that you are understood, please provide all the information both orally and in writing.
10. Encourage the victim before the trial.
1. Before the trial, ask the victim whether he or she would like to have any special arrangements, such as a separate waiting room.
2. Let the victim sit where he or she cannot see or be seen by the suspect. You can, for example, use a screen to prevent eye contact.
3. Ask all questions respectfully and in a friendly way.
4. Give the victim enough time to tell the story. Remember that a traumatic experience affects the victim's memory and ability to function. If necessary, take a break.
5. If the victim wishes to have the suspect removed from the room during his or her hearing, always do as the victim wishes.
6. Prevent all irrelevant questions asked by the defence.