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W&L Study Quantifies Psychological Damage of Stalking

A new study led by a team of researchers at Washington and Lee University has concluded that women who are the victims of stalking are two to three times more likely to suffer from psychological distress than those with similar characteristics who have never been stalked.

The study was conducted by Timothy Diette, associate professor of economics at Washington and Lee, Arthur Goldsmith, the Jackson T. Stephens Professor of Economics at W&L, Darrick Hamilton of New School University, William Darity Jr. of Duke University and Katherine McFarland, a recent W&L graduate. An early view of the paper has been published online by “Social Science Quarterly.”

The researchers used data on women drawn from three major surveys that used face-to-face interviews to collect information on potential determinants of mental disorders in the United States. Those surveys were “harmonized” so that they could be merged, resulting in a sample of 8,109 women. The surveys gathered information on the women’s experiences throughout their life, which the researchers divided into four different stages of the life-cycle— adolescence (ages 12-17), early emerging adulthood (ages 18-22), late emerging adulthood (ages 23-29) and early middle age (ages 30-45). Analysis for each stage was confined to women with good mental health prior to potentially being stalked.

According to the study’s data, 7.7 percent of women report being stalked by the age of 45. For women between 18 and 22 years age, those who have experienced stalking but not sexual assault, during this period in their lives have an estimated 113 percent greater odds of suffering their first bout of psychological distress than women of the same age who were not stalked.

But the study finds that the adverse impact of stalking on mental health is even more pronounced for women who are older when they are first stalked. For instance, women who are between 23 and 29 and who are stalked are 265 percent more likely to have mental health issues while those who are between 30 and 45 have 138 percent greater odds compared to women who never faced this source of trauma.

In compiling this data, the researchers distinguished between women who had been only stalked and those who had been both stalked and sexually assaulted.

“I think the major implication of our findings is that while not everyone takes stalking seriously because in most cases nothing physical happened, the detrimental impact is clear,” said Diette. “This study helps raise awareness that in many cases it’s a really scarring event that causes real-life psychological outcomes for victims’ mental health and their ability to function in society.

“The large negative effect on the mental health of victims was actually surprising to me,” he added. “In many cases where you have a gut reaction that of course there should be an effect, you may find that, after controlling for various elements, those effects are actually smaller than you had expected. That is not the case in this study.

“In the age range 23-29, for example, the effects of stalking starts to approach the same level of negative psychological impact on the victim as sexual trauma. My understanding is that stalking is not viewed nearly as seriously by the general public as sexual assault. This research suggests that we should re-examine that attitude.”

Willful, malicious stalking—a criminal offense—can take different forms, including frequent unwelcome telephone calls, e-mails, letters, loitering nearby and following. Over the past two decades stalking has emerged as a disturbing public issue, with 1 in 20 Americans (12 percent of women and four percent of men) reporting being stalked at some point in their lives.

Previous research has shown that episodes of stalking vary from a few weeks to several years with an average length of just under two years. Approximately one-third of stalkers become violent, and there is a strong link between stalking and domestic violence. Only one-third to one-half of all cases are ever reported to the police, either because the victims are afraid reporting will anger their stalker and make the situation worse, or because they do not believe the police will help them. Only 12 percent of stalking cases result in criminal prosecution and 40 percent of all restraining orders are violated.

However, little is known about the psychological consequences of being stalked, and previous studies were typically based on data drawn from small, non-random samples of clinical populations that were not nationally representative. They also failed to control for other types of trauma that might have an impact on mental health.

One of the interesting findings of the study had to do with the differences in the age of the victims. As the researchers report, the kind of stalking that occurs in adolescence, which may include experiences such as unwanted attention in the school cafeteria or on the school bus, may not generate a great amount of fear in the victim and, therefore, does not show up as a change in emotional health.

This changes, the researchers write, when youths begin the transition to adulthood since the level of anxiety stalking victims experience increases, in part, due to the greater physical strength and sexual urges of males, the typical stalkers as they advance beyond their adolescent years. In addition, there may be less immediate support provided by parents since young adults may live on their own.

Once individuals enter the labor force or have family responsibilities, the study indicates, stalking is likely to take new forms, including intimidating experiences in the workplace and community, and the protective buffer of living with family is likely to be largely removed. Thus, the vulnerability is expected to be greater for women subjected to stalking in this phase of their lives and the adverse psychological consequences may be more substantial, and the study offers evidence that supports this view.

The study points to the need for the attention of policymakers to the issue of stalking. Not only should policy attempt to reduce its prevalence, the researchers contend, but “victims of stalking need access to support services to prevent or manage psychological distress.”

Diette credited the assistance of Washington and Lee’s Summer Research Scholars program for enabling the research. The program encourages well-qualified and strongly motivated students to become familiar with research tools, techniques and methodology through collaborative research with faculty members during the summer.

He said that it is unusual to include a student as co-author of a paper, but in the case of Katherine McFarland, who was a summer research scholar in 2011, it reflects her involvement as a full member of the team, including writing the initial draft of the paper’s introduction. “We’ve had a great many summer research scholars who have been important contributors to helping get the research done,” said Diette, “but Katherine was particularly special. It was also personally rewarding to see what undergraduate students are capable of.”

The full study can be read here: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/ssqu.12058/full

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