Original Research

Exploring the meaning of trauma in the South African Police Service: A systems psychodynamic perspective

Marna Young, Pieter Koortzen, Rudolf M. Oosthuizen
SA Journal of Industrial Psychology | Vol 38, No 2 | a1004 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/sajip.v38i2.1004 | © 2012 Marna Young, Pieter Koortzen, Rudolf M. Oosthuizen | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 05 July 2011 | Published: 25 June 2012

About the author(s)

Marna Young, Clinical Psychologist, Private Practice, South Africa
Pieter Koortzen, University of Johannesburg, South Africa
Rudolf M. Oosthuizen, University of South Africa, South Africa


Orientation: This study explores individual stories of trauma and their dissonance with the official, dominant discourse on trauma in the South African Police Service (SAPS) from a systems psychodynamic perspective.

Research purpose: The purpose of the research was, firstly, to explore how trauma experienced by South African Police Service members is constructed or ‘talked about’ and made sense of. Questions and issues that are considered relevant to the primary purpose are: which aspects of the working environment do members consider to be the most stressful, traumatic and difficult to cope with, and what is the effect of the change and transition processes on members’ working experiences?

Motivation for the study: The authors set out to explore the role of systems psychodynamics in the experience of trauma and stress in the SAPS.

Research design, approach and method: Through this qualitative, explorative, social phenomenological study, contributing circumstances and processes are included as additional discourses in an attempt to deepen understanding. The epistemology viewpoint of the study is found in the social constructionism and the data comprise 15 essays by members of the SAPS, all of which have been analysed from the perspective of systems psychodynamics.

Main findings: Although the effect of trauma on police officers can never be negated, the way in which they deal with trauma seems to be different from what was initially believed. Further, their experience of stress is not solely the result of traumatic experiences but rather the result of traumatic experiences and systems psychodynamics operating within their organisation – which includes both organisational stressors or dynamics and transformation dynamics.

Practical/managerial implications: The history of psychological trauma indicates that constructions of traumatic stress are strongly related to cultural, social and political circumstances. Current psychoanalytic thinking emphasises the meaning of the real occurrence, which causes trauma by changing the person’s experience of the self in relation to self-objects. Practical implications are the loss of the supportive subculture of the police, the loss of masculinity, as well as the loss of the power to be competent and meaningful. Furthermore, feelings of being overwhelmed, powerless and helpless generate anxiety and may have a significant impact on officers’ self-esteem and impede their feelings of omnipotence and invulnerability, which are necessary to cope in the policing environment.

Contribution/value-add: The current study found various traumatic and systemspsychodynamic factors and processes to be anxiety-provoking as a result of exposure to trauma. Without a supportive social group the anxiety becomes uncontained and unmanageable.


traumatic incidents; emotional difficulties; stress; coping; change; transition processes; epistemology; social constructionism; system psychodynamics; anxiety.


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