'I Absolutely Have PTSD': When Stalking Ruins Your Mental Health
Stalking doesn't just end when the perpetrator leaves you alone. It can have a lifelong and damaging impact on some victims' mental health.
Illustration by Calum Heath
Every year, women in the UK are killed by stalkers and domestic abusers—despite previously reporting them to the police. Unfollow Me is a campaign highlighting the under-reported issue of stalking and domestic abuse in support of anti-stalking charity Paladin's calls to introduce a Stalkers Register in the UK. Follow all of our coverage here.
At her most fearful, Carly, a 19-year-old student from Norfolk, UK, considered gluing her bedroom window shut. She’d been stalked by a classmate after turning down his romantic advances in 2017, and he reacted by following her home on numerous occasions.
“I believe he found out where I lived after he followed me home from the supermarket,” she tells me. (To protect the privacy of victims, all names have been changed.) “For five months, he regularly sent me Snapchats of my house, and when I’d block him he’d make new accounts. He claimed to watch me from my window.”
She was mostly scared at night, on account of the large window in her bedroom that faced a main road. “I bought stronger blinds and was tempted to superglue my window shut because I couldn’t sleep.”
More often than not, the stories you hear about stalking are the ones that end in tragedy. For an incident to receive public attention, it typically has to be violent or extreme, like the case of Alice Ruggles, murdered by a stalker ex-boyfriend who broke into her house, or Molly McLaren, who was stabbed to death in her car by an ex-partner. The majority of stalking cases, thankfully, don’t end in murder: They end when the victim finally manages to escape their stalker’s clutches. But trauma doesn’t just end when your stalker leaves you alone. For some, the experience of being stalked can lead to earth-shattering psychological damage.
Carly's stalker left her alone after she moved house this year. But she’s still haunted by the incident. As well as heightening her anxiety, it has transformed the way she interacts with people, making her more insular and less open with strangers.
“I no longer post pictures of my neighborhood in fear someone or he will track me down,” Carly says. “I’m very wary about the information I give anyone I’m talking to now. Every date I’ve had since then has been as far from my home as possible, and I bring people with me.”
Watch: Unfollow Me: The Story of Meera Dalal
Months on from her stalking ordeal, Carly still experiences anxiety, fearfulness, distrust, and disturbed sleep. Carly’s ongoing distress comes as little surprise to Laura Richards, the founder of national stalking advocacy service Paladin. “Stalking is life-changing,” she explains. “Victims do not go back to who they were before they were stalked.” She lists the serious physical and emotional effects that stalking victims can suffer: “Victims may become hypersensitive, hyper vigilant and live on adrenaline, always watching behind them and doing 360-degree risk assessments of every situation.”
These symptoms can be even more extreme depending on the severity and length of the original incident. Sussex-born author Ellie, 28, was stalked by her flatmate while she was at university in 2012. Six years on, her trauma still feels fresh.
“He followed me around the house, to university, to the shops,” Ellie remembers. ”He crowded me into corners and blocked my way around the kitchen, and when I was in the communal rooms he would watch me.
“If he got me alone, he would make suggestive comments or imply that he would kill himself if I didn’t return his romantic feelings. Once, he grabbed me after I tripped, lifted me onto my toes and held me there, by my arms, in a tight grip for a long time.”
Ellie, who was unable to move house due to restrictions on the lease, began to lock herself in her room as a coping mechanism. The move didn’t deter his troubling behavior, and she finally decided to approach her university for help: “They spoke to him, decided I’d got the wrong end of the stick, and told me I definitely couldn’t go the the police ‘until he raped me.’”
The lack of support from her university made Ellie feel even more terrified. A few months before moving out, she wrote and hid a goodbye letter to her family in case her housemate ended up killing her.
“I absolutely have PTSD,” she says. (A psychiatrist told Ellie that her symptoms were “consistent” with the disorder, though she was never formally diagnosed.) “I became a recluse, hiding in my room even from close friends. I still have nightmares. I was scared, angry and miserable, and I felt ashamed of myself for not having been able to stop him making me feel this way.”
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder sparked by a traumatic event. Sufferers can experience vivid flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, alertness, anxiety, and overwhelming feelings of sadness, guilt, anger, or shame. According to mental health charity MIND, PTSD can be triggered by an event which causes the victim to “fear for their life.” One nationally representative sample of women in the US found that those who had experienced stalking at the hands of a current partner are more likely to experience increased PTSD symptoms.
For both Ellie and Carly, the trauma of being stalked was enough to trigger what they believe to be PTSD. It begs the question: If stalking like this can have such an intense psychological effect on victims, then why aren't its aftereffects more widely discussed?
“Stalking contributes to PTSD symptoms above and beyond the effects of other forms of interpersonal violence,” confirms psychiatrist Dr. Paul M.G. Emmelkamp. Emmelkamp has researched the impact of stalking on its victims, finding in one 2001 study of 201 female victims that they were likely to experience “high levels” of psychological morbidity and post-traumatic stress symptoms.
“About ten percent of individuals being stalked have a high PTSD risk,” he adds. “Stalking leads a substantial number of victims to the disorder, with many re-experiencing symptoms and suffering from suicidal thoughts.”
"I wish people had listened to me and understood my fear."
Emmelkamp’s study is one of only a few funded pieces of research on the psychological effect of stalking. Another, published in 2015 by the University of Bedfordshire, looked specifically at the trauma experienced by victims, and concluded that it was “broadly comparable” to the symptoms seen in PTSD, with victims highly likely to feel “isolation, irritability and guilt.” It went on to suggest that these psychological reactions were consistent with victims of stalking both offline and online.
“The prevalence of PTSD following cyberstalking is comparable to other specific traumatic events such as sexual assault and combat,” writes the study author Dr. Emma Short. “Moreover, what is clear is that the victims’ reactions are of a negative nature and include fear, depression, stress, anxiety, lowered self-esteem, and a loss of trust in other people.”
Currently, support or aftercare for stalking victims is practically non-existent, with long waiting lists on Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) for help. “I have actually had several courses of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and it did help a lot—as much as it might not sound like it,” says Ellie.
While CBT ameliorated Ellie’s symptoms and made her less likely to react to certain triggers, she is still on the waiting list to complete her treatment. “I think tackling the effects of a whole year of stalking will take a bit longer, but I know it can be done eventually. I hope.”
But until the after-effects of stalking are examined more closely, and taken more seriously, little will change. Victims still face, in the words of Richards, a “war of attrition” from their stalkers, disbelieving police forces, and medical professionals who don’t know how best to treat them.
Six years on, Ellie still struggles with basic social interactions. “I can’t be around strangers for long periods of time. I get panic attacks in kitchens, or when I’m outside—especially if I feel like somebody’s paying more attention to me than usual, or if I see someone who reminds me of him.
“I wish people had listened to me and understood my fear,” she concludes. “I wish there had been a proper support network in place, and I wish that I hadn’t been made to feel as if I was making a mountain out of a molehill.”
If you are being stalked and you are based in the UK, you can call Paladin on 020 3866 4107. If you are based in the US, you can call the Stalking Resource Center at the National Center for Victims of Crime on 855-484-2846.