Two inquests are currently dominating the news – reminding us that traumas leave an unpredictable legacy. It is impossible to know exactly how people will be affected by a trauma and it is impossible to know exactly when its effects might emerge.
In the case of the 7/7 bombings in London in 2005, the inquest highlighted resentments and misunderstandings between specialists – ambulance, police and firefighting staff all had expectations of each other that went unfulfilled, leaving them all feeling blamed for others’ shortcomings. And it made those specialists relive their experiences – bringing some to tears in the witness stand.
As for the death of barrister Mark Saunders, killed in a siege in May 2008, a specialist firearms police officer is accused of playing a game with the evidence he gave at the inquest in September 2009.
What both these situations show is that it is important not just to support people’s mental and emotional health years after they have experienced a trauma; it is also important to help them develop resilience before they experience a trauma including by recognising when they might be vulnerable to pressures and stress, how those vulnerabilities might emerge, and when and how to seek help.
While it might not have been possible to predict a random bombing, it is possible to predict that police, firefighters, paramedics and ambulance staff will face traumas of some sort – and that they will react differently to them. With specialists such as firearms officers, it is possible to predict that some will behave oddly before, during or after a trauma, perhaps as a way of managing their anxieties, the overwhelming nature of their responsibilities, or the difficult decisions they had to make while under pressure.
It is not for us to pass judgement on the way the people involved in these two high-profile cases behaved during their traumas or afterwards or to imply whether they are innocent or guilty. What we can say is that the way they behaved is entirely predictable, in an unpredictable kind of way, and that organisations can help their staff face, manage and recover from a trauma if they take professional advice including from mental health specialists.