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The research team for the project included talent from Washington and Lee University.
Wednesday, October 16, 2013
Researchers set out to determine if stalking victims suffered bouts of depression or anxiety that could affect their potential earning power. Even they were surprised to discover the extent that stalking scars the emotional well-being of victims.
Women who are stalked without being sexually assaulted are two to three times more likely to experience poor mental health than women who had been neither stalked nor assaulted. Women in their mid- to late 20s are most vulnerable to psychological distress from stalking, though middle-aged women suffered as well, according to the study published in the recent edition of Social Science Quarterly.
“The main things is, we hope this will help change a few folks’ perception about the severity of stalking,” said Washington and Lee University associate professor of economics Timothy Diette. The research was conducted by a team of economists and public policy professors from W&L, Duke University and New School University.
“We know that stalking is bad and can be traumatic to experience.” Diette said. “But is it bad enough to cause depression, anxiety and PTSD?”
The study’s answers should prompt policymakers to devote more resources to help stalking victims and make counseling as available to them as it is to sexual assault victims, he said.
While adolescents seemed to escape emotionally unscathed from stalking episodes, college-aged women who were stalked without being sexually assaulted were 113 percent more likely to suffer psychological distress than those who were never stalked.
“Moreover, the adverse impact of stalking victimization on mental health is even more pronounced for women who are older when they are first subjected to this form of abuse.” The researchers wrote of “a striking and disturbing finding,” in that women first stalked in their mid- to late 20s were 265 percent more likely to experience poor emotional health compared with women who encountered no form of sexual assault.
And middle-aged women faced 138 percent greater odds of experiencing their first bout of depression or anxiety if first stalked during that stage of life.
“This suggests that the stalking that women face once they reach, and advance beyond, their early 20s is more menacing or generates greater fear than stalking victimization occurring early in life,” the study said.
Virginia lawmakers in 2011 eased the requirements to obtain protection-from-abuse orders. The revisions recommended by the Virginia State Crime Commission were adopted after University of Virginia student Yeardley Love was murdered by a former boyfriend. Until then, PFAs were available only to victims of family abuse or to stalking victims, but the hurdles to prove “stalking” were difficult to clear, requiring multiple threats and a criminal warrant. Victims no longer need to be assaulted first.
Also, this year, lawmakers increased the penalty for a second stalking offense if it occurs within five years.
Senate Majority Leader Thomas Norment, R-James City County, who heads the crime commission, said he had yet to read the study.
“What I will do is get a copy of the report and talk to the executive director of the crime commission,” he said.
Norment said the commission did not have the staff or time to respond with legislative remedies before the next General Assembly session begins in January.
As an economist, Diette said it is important to research factors that contribute to poor emotional health since it reduces educational attainment, harms employment prospects and leads to lower wages. No study had looked at the connection between stalking and mental health, he said.
The data were there for the mining. The researchers drew upon three surveys — the National Comorbidity Survey Replication, the National Survey of American Life and the National Latino and Asian American Study — in which women were asked whether “someone followed you or kept track of your activities in a way that made you feel you were in serious danger.”
Researchers followed more than 8,000 women, plotting the ages of those who reported being stalked and the ages they first experienced psychological distress. Women who had been sexually assaulted were excluded, as were women who encountered poor mental health before being stalked. The study notes the challenge of isolating the impact of being stalked from other traumatic experiences, especially as a woman ages.
“We looked at the relative effect and when the first onset of psychological distress occurred to when the stalking occurred,” Diette said.
Still, there was much they could not determine. “The biggest unknown is we don’t know who did the stalking, and we don’t know how long it went on,” he said, noting that trauma would differ if the stalker were a former romantic partner or if it occurred once or often.
The study also could not address whether stalking contributes to substance abuse or eating disorders. And it did not look at male victims, as their number is fewer and men may react differently, Diette said. Statistically, women are the prey of male stalkers. Former romantic partners account for 60 percent of the stalkers, and another 20 percent are acquaintances. The study looked at stalking as frequent, unwelcome phone calls, emails, letters, loitering nearby and following.
Given that the data sets were collected between 2001 and 2003, the effect of cyberstalking on adolescents’ mental health could not tallied, he said.
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