More than 7.5 million people are victimized by stalkers in the United States each year. The encounters that accompany this behavior are scary and unpredictable, and tragic outcomes are frighteningly common. But even those who escape their tormentors are often unable to elude another persistent and terrifying companion of the stalking experience—post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The confluence between PTSD and stalking victimization is sad but inevitable. Even when they don’t turn violent—which they do about one-third of the time—stalkers are soul assassins who destroy their targets’ sense of security and safety. A stalker’s victim spends 24 hours a day looking over her shoulder, feeling perpetually vulnerable and never knowing when her enemy might strike. The emotions of a stalking victim are not far removed from the fear and paranoia felt by men and women trapped in war zones. Stalkers turn the lives of their victims upside down in an instant, from the moment they begin their cruel campaigns, and the effects of this stress can be overwhelming for men and women who are psychologically unprepared to handle such a threat.
Study Reveals Immense Toll
Women comprise about 80 percent of all stalking victims, and women in the 18-to-24 age range are abused by stalkers more frequently than any other demographic subgroup. It is estimated that 12 percent to 16 percent of all women will be persecuted by a stalker at some point in their lives. In order to probe the effects of this experience more deeply, researchers at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia examined the medical histories of more than 8,000 women responding to various health surveys. All of these women were 45 and under, and about 8 percent of them had suffered from the predations of a stalker at least once. The Washington and Lee researchers were looking for an association between stalking victimization and serious emotional and psychological disturbance (including, but not limited to, PTSD); they knew a connection existed but were unsure of its depth and breadth. For the purposes of analysis, the stalking victims uncovered in this study were divided into four age groups (12-17, 18-22, 23-29 and 30-45). Among each of the final three groups, stalking was linked to a huge increase in the risk for life-altering emotional trauma. The highest ratio of increase was for women aged 23-29, where the likelihood of being diagnosed with a mental health disorder following a stalking incident (with no accompanying assault) was elevated by 265 percent, in comparison to women of similar age with no stalking history. Among 18- to 22-year-olds, the likelihood was 113 percent greater, and for those aged 30 to 45, it was 138 percent greater. In raw numbers, this translates to a 30 percent incidence of PTSD or other trauma-related conditions for female stalking victims in their mid-to-late 20s and a 17 percent to 20 percent rate for those in the other two groups. This represents an enormous elevation of risk and reveals just how emotionally jarring the stalking experience is for its victims.
Therapy for Stalking Victims Is Essential, but Neglected
About 20 percent of women and 8 percent of men will suffer from PTSD during their lifetimes. Approximately 30 percent of this group will suffer from a chronic form of the illness that will remain with them indefinitely. Sadly, most stalking victims are not getting the help they need to recover. Overall, only about one-third of those harassed by stalkers will report their mistreatment to the police, and while no exact statistics are available, the percentage who get therapy and counseling to help them cope with their trauma is undoubtedly much lower. The initial emotional disturbance stalking victims undergo will often have a delayed effect, and it can be several years before full-blown PTSD develops. But then again, PTSD can strike trauma sufferers in a flash, causing havoc in their lives from the moment of the first incident. Vivid flashbacks, chronic anxiety, excessive paranoia, panic attacks, agoraphobia, constant dread and apprehension, fear of being alone, hypervigilance and suicidal thoughts are some of the most common symptoms of PTSD. All are signs of trouble, and if even one of them develops, the suffering person should seek out professional help as soon as possible.