FRIDAY, Oct. 18 (HealthDay News) -- Women who are the victims of stalkers are up to three times more likely than their peers to experience psychological distress, new research finds.
Policy makers should not only make an effort to reduce the prevalence of this criminal offense, but also provide stalking victims better access to support services to help them cope with any resulting mental health issues, said the researchers at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va.
"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," Timothy Diette, assistant professor of economics at Washington and Lee, said in a university news release. "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."
Using information compiled on over 8,100 women from three major surveys, the investigators examined the women's life experiences. In doing so, they divided the women's lives into four different stages based on their age: adolescence (ages 12 to 17); early emerging adulthood (ages 18 to 22); late emerging adulthood (ages 23 to 29); and early middle age (ages 30 to 45).
The study, released online in advance of print publication in an upcoming issue of Social Science Quarterly, found that nearly 8 percent of the women said they were stalked by the age of 45.
Women aged 18 to 22 who were stalked but not sexually assaulted had an estimated 113 percent greater chance of experiencing psychological distress than other women their own age who were not stalked, the findings revealed.
However, the psychological effects were even more profound for women who were stalked when they were older, the researchers found. Women who were between 23 and 29 years of age when they were first stalked were 265 percent (nearly three times) more likely to have mental health problems.
For women aged 30 to 45, the study found a 138 percent greater chance of psychological distress among victims compared with their peers who were not victimized in this way.
The researchers suggested that younger women and teens who are stalked may not be as frightened by this type of behavior, such as unwanted attention at school. As a result, it might not significantly affect their emotional health. Once young women reach adulthood, however, their anxiety level increases as the physical strength and sexual urges of their stalkers increase with age. Women who are working or have family responsibilities are also more vulnerable to the psychological consequences of stalking, the study authors noted in the news release.
Although the effects of stalking are commonly viewed as less significant than the negative effects of a physical assault, the researchers found they actually come close.
"The large negative effect on the mental health of victims was actually surprising to me," noted Diette. "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," he pointed out.
"In the age range 23 to 29, for example, the effects of stalking starts to approach the same level of negative psychological impact on the victim as sexual trauma," Diette explained. "My understanding is that stalking is not viewed nearly as seriously by the general public as sexual assault."
Willful or malicious stalking is a criminal offense in the United States, the study authors noted. This behavior can include frequent unwelcome phone calls, emails, letters, lurking or lingering nearby, and following someone. Over the course of the past 20 years, stalking has become a more pressing public issue, affecting 12 percent of women and 4 percent of men at some point in their lives, according to background information in the news release.
Previous studies have suggested that stalking episodes can range from a few weeks to nearly two years. About one-third of stalkers become violent. This criminal behavior is often associated with domestic violence.
Still, just one-third to one-half of stalking cases are reported to authorities because victims are often afraid of angering their stalkers and making the situation worse. Victims also tend to believe that the police are unable to help, because an estimated 40 percent of all restraining orders are violated.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has more about stalking.