Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Cognitive and Emotional Impact of Crime, Part 1

By Carol Wilson, Director, York-Poquoson Victim Witness Assistance Program

Many people are aware of the financial impact of crime—the stolen car, the broken window, the medical bills from the fractured arm.  But few comprehend the cognitive and emotional cost of crime on its victims and society. Yet, while the financial burden of criminal transgressions can leave a long-lasting impact on the innocent, it is often the hidden mental effects that take the largest toll. 

What are Traumatic Events?
Traumatic events often occur suddenly and without warning.  When people find themselves in danger, they can be overwhelmed by fear, helplessness, or horror.  Common traumatic experiences include robbery, a serious accident, sexual assault, home invasion or burglary..  After these events, survivors may experience physical, mental and emotional reactions.

Specific Crimes Have Specific Effects and Specific Needs

Any crime can trigger a reaction. Losing a loved one to violence is a devastating event and grieving is complicated by the suddenness of the crime. Family members and friends struggle with their loss while coping with participation in a court process.  And while it may be easy to see the impact that a crime such as murder can have on family and friends of the victim, other crimes also can have deep and lasting impact. 

Following victimization, many individuals cope with inconvenience caused by the crime, fear, anger or resentment, depression, self-blame, and/or a sense of loss. They may ask, “Why me?” or second-guess their reaction during the crime. If they knew the person who perpetrated the crime, they may begin to doubt their judgment and ability to assess others’ character and their intentions; they may begin to distance themselves from friends.

The National Victim Center describes robbery as one of the most feared crimes because it not only involves a loss of property, but also includes the threat, or use, of violence. Some victims remember very little of the event while others may recall parts of the incident in excruciating detail. If the robbery occurred at work, victims may have difficulty returning to work, or no longer feel safe there.  In addition to injuries and loss of time from work, many who are injured in an attack may have flashbacks of the event.

Sexual assault is the most devastating form of assault. Individuals who have been sexually assaulted either as a child or an adult have experienced a violation of the body, mind, soul and spirit.  The effects of rape and other sexual violations cannot be exaggerated. The impact is even more devastating if the assault is perpetrated by someone the victim knows. Sexual assault does NOT have to involve violent force to have serious impact on the victim. Research shows that victims who experience sexual assault are significantly more likely to experience substance abuse, depression and suicidal thoughts. These effects often linger months, years, even decades after the assault occurred.  Resolving these natural reactions can be complicated by victim-blaming messages in media coverage surrounding the court case, ill-informed negative attitudes of family members or friends, and the repeated court appearances required by the criminal justice process.   

Stalking can also have severe impact.  Unlike most crimes, which occur and then end, stalking is ongoing—victims are always waiting for the next incident to occur, so they are always “looking over their shoulder.”  Over time, stalking victims can become irritable, angry, paranoid; concentration suffers, normal activities may be sacrificed, relationships may end.

Finally, property crime may be one of the most overlooked areas of criminal activity in terms of its effects on its victims. Vandalism can include destructive hate messages; fraud can take elderly victims’ entire life savings; identity theft can ruin a good reputation, trigger bankruptcy or lead to a false arrest. Burglary and home invasion often leave a family shaken and experiencing vulnerability; these victims frequently suffer from a sense of violation—a feeling that their home is no longer safe.

Despite the differences in all of these crimes, they all have one trait in common—for the victim, the event is unexpected, uncontrollable and can create a traumatic reaction.

How do Traumas Affect Us?
Traumatic events often “short-circuit” our ability to cope because the events are not normal.  Studies show that life-threatening events cause a series of chemicals to be released into the blood stream which trigger responses in the brain and body.  In the past, this response was simply often referred to as “Fight or Flight.” Researchers now recognize that reactions may vary, and can even include “Freeze” in response to a traumatic event.Once in the bloodstream, these chemicals prepare the brain and body to survive the dangerous event.  However, these chemicals often have side effects that can linger in the body for days or weeks after the traumatic event, such as impaired memory, heightened emotions, sleeplessness and a number of other cognitive, emotional and physical disturbances.  Add this biochemical impact on the body to the shattering of one’s belief in the world as a safe place, and it is believed that almost everyone would develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) if they were exposed to a severe enough trauma.  The severity of the effects often depends on the person’s life experiences before the trauma, a person’s natural coping skills, how serious the trauma was, and what kind of support is available from family, friends, work, religion, and professionals immediately after the trauma.  If an incident triggers a fear of death, an individual is at much greater risk for significant symptoms that may become long-lasting.

Because most people are not familiar with the impact of trauma, they often have trouble understanding the symptoms they experience. They may think the traumatic reaction is their fault, that they are going crazy or that something is wrong with them because the traumatic event is “getting to them” when they should be “strong”.  Survivors may withdraw from family and friends or turn to drugs and alcohol in an attempt to feel better.  Unfortunately, these actions do not help survivors recover from the trauma.  

**Next week we will run Part 2 of Carol's post, in which she will address the common effects of trauma, as well as how to cope with traumatic events and where to go for help.

For more information and helpful resources, go to:

Carol Wilson has been employed by the York-Poquoson Victim-Witness Assistance Program since 1996, and the director of the program since 2002.  She is a Credentialed Advanced Victim Advocate through the National Organization for Victim Assistance’s National Advocate Credentialing Program, and certified in Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) Peer and Group Crisis Intervention through the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation. She currently sits on the York-Poquoson Child Advocacy Team, the Colonial Area Intimate Partner and Family Violence Fatality Review Team, and is the Team Coordinator for the York County Violence Against Women Task Force.