Beyond Harassment: The Psychological Distress from Being Stalked

Dec 20, 2013, 8:00 AM, Posted by


In our recent study, we estimate that female victims of stalking have a two to three times greater risk of developing psychological distress than women who are not the victims of stalking.

Though stalking is generally viewed as a less serious issue than sexual assault, public health officials estimate that approximately one in 20 Americans will be stalked at some point in their lives.  One third of those stalkers will become violent, and there is a strong link between stalking and domestic violence.  Our study examined the mental distress associated with stalking, and thus provides a conservative estimate of the true effects, which would include the risk of sexual and other physical violence associated with stalking as well.

“A truly scarring event.”  

We analyzed nationally representative survey data of interviews of more than 8,000 women.  The women were considered “psychologically distressed” if their responses identified them with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder, or Generalized Anxiety Disorder.  In addition to information on the respondents’ mental health, the surveys also provided detailed information about the women’s experiences with stalking, including what age they were first stalked.  The data allowed us to identify if the women suffered other types of trauma as well as if they were in good mental health prior to the stalking, which helps isolate the effects of stalking on mental health.  

The findings are alarming.  Women who are first stalked between the ages of 18 and 22 have 113 percent greater odds of developing mental distress, while women who are first stalked between the ages of 23 and 29 are 265 percent more likely to develop mental distress.  Women who are first stalked between the ages of 30 and 45 have a 138 percent great chance of becoming mentally distressed.

The discrepancy in risk factor based on age may be related to other conditions in a woman’s life at the time she is stalked.  While an adolescent may face harassment at school from a fellow student, this normally does not create the same amount of fear as someone who is stalked by a coworker or former romantic partner.  At later stages in life, stalkers may exhibit more violent behavior toward their victims.  By the time a woman turns 23, she is also more likely to be living away from home or college dorms, and the isolation may increase her fears.

The research team hopes their results will encourage policy-makers to provide more safeguards against stalking and more serious responses and resources for victims.

The major implication of our findings is that, while many may naively view stalking as a simple annoyance, the detrimental impact is clear.  Our study raises awareness that in many cases stalking is a truly scarring event that has a detrimental effect on the  victims’ mental health, and their ability to function in society.

The study is originally published in Social Sciences Quarterly.  More information is available here.

*Darrick Hamilton is an associate professor of economics and urban policy at Milano – The New School for International Affairs, Management and Urban Policy, an affiliated faculty member in the Department of Economics at The New School for Social Research, a faculty research fellow at the Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis, an affiliate scholar at the Center for American Progress, a research affiliate at the Research Network on Racial and Ethnic Inequality at Duke University, and a former Associate Director of the American Economic Association Summer Research and Minority Training Program.  He earned a PhD from the Department of Economics at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill in 1999. He is a stratification economist whose work focuses on the causes, consequences, and remedies of racial and ethnic inequality in economic and health outcomes, which includes an examination of the intersection of identity, racism, colorism, and socioeconomic outcomes.  

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Human Capital Blog. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors.