With anti-harassment campaigns like #MeToo and, more recently, #TimesUp – an initiative launched by prominent women in the entertainment industry to fight systemic sexual harassment, assault and inequality, which culminated with Hollywood stars wearing black in solidarity at last night’s Golden Globes awards – the time is now to address another behavior that affects one in six women in the United States. Stalking.

According to Vjollca Martinson, Ph.D., director of clinical programs and case management at The Medical Center of Aurora, stalking is a crime of power and control.

“Stalking is a dangerous behavior and, in all 50 states, is considered a criminal activity,” says Dr. Martinson, whose work focuses on helping adolescents recover and heal from trauma.  “It can be quite dangerous and unpredictable and can cause fear, anxiety and depression for the victim, so it has become a real mental health issue, as well.”

For the 7.5 million people who are stalked annually in the U.S., including one in 19 men, Dr. Martinson says, in order to take care of themselves, it’s important to know that they have done nothing wrong. This way, they will be more open to report the behavior, she adds.

In this blog, Dr. Martinson helps us understand what you should know about stalking and what you can do to support those affected by this unwanted, criminal behavior.

What is stalking?

Stalking is defined as a pattern of unwanted behavior and attention, or obsessive behaviors, which are directed at a specific person. Not only is it unwanted attention, but it also causes quite a bit of fear and anxiety to the person (i.e victim) who is being stalked.

Why is stalking considered a health issue?

Stalking can become quite devastating and can have long lasting physical, emotional and psychological effects on the victim. Also, when it comes to the person’s mental health, stalking can create:

  • anxiety,
  • insomnia,
  • nervousness,
  • depression, and
  • social dysfunction – when people are scared to go outside because the stalker might be stalking them at any time.

Research indicates that the above issues are much higher in victims of stalking, compared to that of the general population.

What are some examples of stalking?

Stalking can look differently. There is not one particular example or behavior, but instead patterns that the perpetrators demonstrate. Any type of unwanted attention can be considered stalking behavior, but it can be revealed in different areas.

For example:

  • Repeated, unwanted, intrusive and frightening communication from the perpetrator by phone, text, email, letter, or notes.
  • Following the victim or waiting for the victim in places that the victim frequents like their neighborhood, home, school, work, or recreation places.
  • Sending the victims unwanted items or gifts ranging from romantic presents such as flowers or items that you don’t expect to receive.
  • Stalking can be direct or indirect threats of harm to the victim, the victim’s children, family members or pets and sometimes even the neighbors.
  • Stalking behaviors can also be considered retaliation forms of conduct. We see this mostly with sexual harassment victims after making a report on their sexual harassers. In return, the perpetrators stalk in retaliation for reporting the harassment. (That’s an unknown type of stalking but so many women struggle with this.)
  • Another stalking behavior can be damaging or threatening to damage the victim’s property. One of the reasons for this action is to take away the person’s sense of safety.
  • Other forms of stalking include posting information or spreading rumors of the victim in a public place or by word of mouth.
  • Gathering personal information about the victim by accessing public records, internet searches, or hiring private investigators.
  • Contacting family members, victims’ friends, colleagues or neighbors to find out more information about the victim.
  • Cyberstalking: The use of the internet, cell phones, GPS, and other electronic means, has made it easier for some people to engage in those stalking behaviors.
    • Cyberstalking can go from using the internet to pursue or harass someone or posting rumors about somebody with the intent to create fear or defame someone’s personality;
    • sending obscene or hateful messages via email or chat rooms;
    • assuming someone’s identity to get information and use it against them.

Cyberstalking has become a problematic and powerful crime. Those stalkers are using the power of the internet to obsess more about the victim. It also has made it easier to stalk because the information is right there at the edge of their fingertips.

What are the characteristics of a stalker?

Although there is a certain “profile,” we need to understand that anyone can be a stalker. We cannot simply say, “this person is safe” and “this person is not safe” when it comes to being self-aware and creating a safe environment. Anyone has the potential of being a stalker, regardless of their gender, race, or sexual orientation.

However, most stalkers are young to middle-age with above-average intelligence. They also tend to exhibit the following traits:

  • Poor social skills, and obsessive behaviors.
  • Don’t believe they are being threatening or intimidating.
  • Do think they are trying to do something nice for the victim.
  • Do think they are trying to gain their love
  • Don’t understand they are producing more anxiety.
  • Has had some type of relationship with the victim. (According to the Stalking Resource Center, 66 percent of women who reported being stalked, were stalked by a current or former partner.)

What can someone do if they think they are being stalked?

There are a lot of times that we have to go with our own instinct and, most importantly, trust it. If I have that feeling that somebody is watching me, I’ve got to trust my instinct.

Next, we need to ask ourselves, are we at risk?

Other questions to ask include:

  • Am I bothered by someone’s unwanted attention?
  • Am I frightened by somebody’s action?
  • Is somebody lurking around my home, my work or places that I go?
  • Is substance abuse or aggression present on this person? If so, that means I’m at a greater risk and I’ve got to do something about it now.
  • Has the stalker destroyed or vandalized any of my property?
  • Has the stalker threatened any of my family, coworkers, or community members?

We have to look at these in a systemic way, rather than wondering if this thing is only happening to you. If I have been targeted as the victim, the perpetrator is not going to only target me, but he or she is going to target my community as well. Their purpose is to get as close to me as they can, so they will need “help” from my family, neighbors, and colleagues, as well.

How can you help a friend who is being stalked?

We need to recognize that stalking behaviors are dangerous and it’s a crime. The victim may not open up because they are afraid that if they tell, the perpetrator is going to hurt them or their family members. Here are a few things you can do to help support the victim.

  • It’s important to encourage victims to talk about those feelings, inform others and report the crime.
  • As family members and community members, work with the victims to report and to develop a safety plan.
  • Provide access to resources like law enforcement authorities, health care providers, and local victim advocates to talk through their options and discuss safety planning. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is available at 1–800–799–SAFE or the Stalking Resource Center is can be accessed here.

January is National Stalking Awareness Month. Vjollca Martinson, Ph.D., is a therapist at HealthONE’s The Medical Center of Aurora in Denver, an affiliate of HCA Healthcare. She referenced information from the Stalking Resource Center for the purposes of this blog.