Coaching cops

A Tel Aviv clinic practices drama therapy in unexpected places.

cops 521 (photo credit: REUTERS)
cops 521
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The scenario is intriguing: a group of seasoned police officers, accustomed to dealing with severe criminal elements, participating in a drama therapy workshop for professional development.
“I wanted to put drama therapy in unexpected places,” explains therapist Shlomit Mandel. Speaking to The Jerusalem Post at a trendy café in Tel Aviv following a three hour morning session with more than 20 officers, she discussed her ambition to bring this relatively new healing tool to the mainstream, including “banks, police, prison staff – all the tough environments and tough people who don’t get the chance to find their soft side. And there’s a lot of strength in our soft side.”
Mandel, who graduated a year ago with a master’s degree in drama therapy from the University of Haifa, runs a private clinic in Tel Aviv’s Yemenite Quarter, where she treats clients from diverse cultural backgrounds, many of whom suffer from acute mental illness.
Designed to assist in the interrogation of juvenile delinquents, the experimental police workshop – titled “The Drama Way: Understanding Adolescence” – has already been generating positive feedback. Thus far it was given twice, in July and September, and the plan is to continue offering it to a new group of officers every other month.
Sceptical participants among the police officers might have wondered what Mandel – a young, attractive professional with no criminal record whatsoever and no apparent experience with the underworld – could possibly teach them when it comes to dealing with the rougher elements of society.
“But in the end, they learn something new; they’re willing to grow,” she says, praising their strength of character. “These are good people, sensitive,” she asserted.
“I’m glad they’re taking care of us.”
The workshop is divided into two sections.
The first half focuses on the adolescent experience and involves the participants directly.
“I ask them what adolescence means to them personally,” Mandel says. “I get to their memories. It’s not an easy thing to do.”
One fact acknowledged by the majority of officers was that the adolescent stage is much more complicated and stressful today than it used to be, Mandel says.
During the second half of the workshop, the officers presented realistic scenarios through role playing, with the participation of two professional actors.
“Drama therapy allows you to change roles, to experience something different,” Mandel pointed out. “It’s a method of emotional therapy that combines dramatic elements such as role play, role reversal, characters, props, projective cards.”
With the use of props, such as dolls, “it allows you to distance yourself from the actual pain. I combine elements from drama therapy and psychodrama. They’re cousins, but psychodrama is more direct. Drama therapy is very non-threatening.”
“Drama therapy, because it’s very flexible and uses spontaneity, creativity and freedom, allows you to look at a familiar situation from a new angle,” Mandel says. Each person has a unique way of reacting to circumstances, and “what I’m hoping is that they remember that there’s always another way of looking at a situation. For example, if a kid refuses to respond, I might feel like smacking him. But if I listen to his stress, his fears, I might find another way to get to him. And that is their mission.”
“Police go to terrible places, seeing a dead baby, a terrible rape,” Mandel continued.
“They don’t have anywhere to vent and it could affect their family life. It’s such a difficult job on an emotional level, but there isn’t any time to deal with it. But you can’t ignore your emotions. Somehow they will come out and better it should happen in a constructive way.
“That’s why it’s such a unique workshop.
The environment and the atmosphere that I build give them the possibility to open up on a personal level. They don’t get this anywhere else. And I do believe that once they actually find a connection between themselves and the youth sitting there, they have a much better chance of getting what they want, such as a confession or evidence.”
After all, “their job isn’t to pamper the kid. It’s how to get to that kid. It’s so important to listen, not just to what the kid says, but also to what he doesn’t say. I hope they’ll learn to really, really listen, and if they use these skills in their personal relationships as well, that would be a bonus. These are life skills that everybody should learn.”
According to one assessment, which reflected the general consensus among the participants, the session was “very interesting and educational. The host was professional and dynamic. She created interest through sharing, listening, accepting and being creative.
The workshop allowed a different communication between the policemen involved.”
Mandel, 35, used to be an actress. “When I decided to go back to school, I was interested in therapy, and drama therapy was the best combination.”
A PROFOUND difference between her former and current careers is that as an actor, you put yourself at the center, while as a therapist, you put the patient at the center, Mandel says.
The initiative to work with police resulted from her interest in increasing an awareness of drama therapy among the general population, which she believes could be useful in a variety of circumstances, such as conflict management, interpersonal relationships and misunderstandings among staff.
For instance, “I worked with staff in a home for the aged,” she says. “There was so much tension and anger. They don’t have a place to vent.”
Mandel uses different methods depending on each individual case. Certainly role switching is an effective tool when dealing with marital friction, she says. By walking in his or her spouse’s shoes, the couple could come to a better understanding of the other’s predicament.
Mandel is eager to work with people who had been reluctant to use professional therapy to deal with emotional issues. For example, “I think it’s very important and very possible to break into the religious community,” where many are accustomed to consulting their spiritual leaders for advice and hesitate to approach professionals from the outside world about personal matters. “But I think many among them are becoming more and more open to the idea.”
“As a therapist, I need to be able to understand their world, to understand the culture and beliefs of the patients,” she says. “I need to learn and I need to respect their way of life. I believe that a good therapist is willing to accept the patient and give them what they need, not what I think they need. I may have the tools and expertise, the education, but ultimately the patient knows what he needs. And if he doesn’t, we find it together. For the therapist to think he knows better is wrong.
“Drama therapy enables me to see the person behind the illness,” she says. “That’s the power of this tool. It works with the patient’s strengths. It also helps you to become less judgmental and more accepting – really. I learn from my patients.”
Mandel has also conducted a workshop for groups of singles.
“It was amazing,” she says. “It was four hours. The first thing they did was ask for a drink to help them relax; they were nervous.”
By the end of the evening, she says, they were totally comfortable and some even exchanged contact information.
“I believe in talking about emotions and problems, not ignoring them,” she stresses. “And I don’t believe in games. If there’s something you want, you have to see how to get it, but hopefully without hurting anyone, including yourself. Life is very short and very beautiful. It’s our responsibility to make the most of it, and dealing with people is an important aspect.
“I also believe in just having fun. Drama therapy gives the opportunity to touch new places, to learn through sheer fun.
Everybody loves to play. We just don’t remember it because we’re adults.”
Asked if drama therapy would be particularly useful in Israel in order to help traumatized combat soldiers and terror victims, she comments: “It’s just another profession here that needs more government support. Drama therapy is very important work and very effective in dealing with trauma.”
Although it’s slowly becoming more common, drama therapy seems not to be taken seriously enough by the medical profession, says Mandel, who hopes to eventually expand her services across the country.
“It’s a process. It’s getting better, little by little.”