Stalking Awareness Week: Expert insight from Dr Ronan McIvor
National Stalking Awareness Week occurs in the UK in mid-April every year; to highlight the crime of stalking and the devastating effect it can have on people’s lives. The theme for National Stalking Awareness Week this year (19th – 23rd of April), is ‘Unmasking Stalking’.
According to Scotland Yard, stalking incidents jumped 300 per cent between April 2020 and February 2021; indicating a massive surge in stalking crime during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dr Ronan McIvor, Consultant psychiatrist at Nightingale Hospital has carried out research into stalking and has a special interest in the psychological impacts of being a victim of stalking.
In light of National Stalking Awareness Week, Dr McIvor shares expert psychological insight into this topic below.
What is stalking?
Stalking is described as repeated and persistent attempts to impose unwanted contact and/or communication on another person which may arouse concern and fear and compromise safety (Mullen et al, 1999, 2000). Stalking can be considered a form of harassment.
Contact can occur by loitering, following, surveillance and making approaches, and communication can be made by either conventional or electronic means.
Stalking can escalate and lead to intimidation, threats or violence. Anyone can be the victim of stalking, including previous or present partners, casual acquaintances and friends, professional contacts, workplace colleagues, strangers, or those in the media spotlight.
Stalking is common, with a recent Office of National Statistics survey showing 1 in 5 women and 1 in 10 men are victims of stalking. Mental health professionals are at particular risk of being stalked.
Recent legislation has made it easier for perpetrators to be convicted, particularly with the introduction of Stalking Protection Orders, but more training within the police and criminal justice system is required.
What motivates an individual to stalk someone?
One widely used classification of stalkers is based on motivation: The rejected, the intimacy seeker, the resentful, the incompetent suitor and the predatory (Mullen et al, 1999).
The importance of this classification is that it helps predict risk and behaviour patterns, and informs management approaches.
- Rejected – Usually a former intimate partner. This is the most common type of stalking in the general population. The perpetrator is most likely to threaten or assault; motivation is reconciliation or revenge for rejection or both; often sustained.
- Intimacy seeker –Desires a relationship with someone which he or she is convinced already exists and is or will be reciprocated, despite evidence to contrary. Commonly a motivation for patients to stalk clinicians.
- Incompetent stalker – Usually engages in stalking to establish a relationship, simply to seek a date or have a sexual encounter. The individual is usually socially and interpersonally inept, and usually not persistent. This can also be motivation for patients to stalk a clinician.
- Resentful stalker – Usually sets out to frighten and intimidate victim to exact revenge for actual or perceived injury. The individual usually commits sustained harassment, leading to a sense of control and power. Threats may be common but rarely resorts to violence. Commonly a motivation in patients who stalk clinicians.
- Predatory stalker – Covert stalking behaviour is preparatory to assault, usually sexual; rare; risk of violence high.
How has the pandemic impacted stalking?
Stalking has increased during the pandemic, linked with worsening domestic violence and stalking by ex-partners. There has been a significant increase in cyber-related stalking since the onset of the pandemic. Stalkers are increasingly harassing their victims online who are isolated at home, thus worsening their sense of separation.
Stalkers are taking advantage of developments in technology to allow covert stalking, through hacking internet-enabled devices such as TV’s, or Alexa/Echo and drones. Wearing masks has emboldened stalkers and makes identification via CCTV or camera more difficult.
What to do if you feel you are being stalked?
Many people don’t realise they are being stalked.
Remember, two or more unwanted contacts by someone, which causes you concern, constitutes stalking.
- If in doubt, remember FOUR: Fixated, Obsessive, Unwanted, Repeated
- A common misconception is that stalkers are lonely introverts sitting at home on their laptops. Many people will know their stalker, who may be ex-partners.
- Anyone can be a stalker. Anyone can be stalked. Remember it’s not the victim’s fault.
Psychological consequences of being stalked
Dr Ronan McIvor has a special interest in the assessment and treatment of the psychological consequences of stalking. Stalking can give rise to a range of psychological difficulties, including increasing fear, hypervigilance, loneliness and anxiety, constantly feeling on guard and in danger, suicidal thoughts and behaviour, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Dr McIvor has carried out research into stalking, particularly stalking directed to health care professions, who are at increased risk of being stalked.
- McIvor RJ, Potter L & Davies L (2008) Stalking behaviour by patients towards psychiatrists in a large mental health organisation. International Journal of Social Psychiatry, 54(4), 350357
- McIvor, R.J., Petch, E. (2006) Stalking of Mental Health Professionals: an under-recognised problem. British Journal of Psychiatry, 188, 403-404.
- McIvor, R.J. (2004) Ever Been Stalked? BMJ Career Focus, 328, 113-114
Dr McIvor believes that more funding for specialist stalking services is required, to make treatment more accessible for victims.
What to do if you feel you are being stalked
- Take it seriously
- On the commencement of stalking, convey one ‘stay away’ message to the stalker. Inform the perpetrator that his or her behaviour is unacceptable and should stop. Be clear, unequivocal and unambiguous. If the harassment continues, have no further initiated contact with the stalker
- Never engage with the stalker – it simply reinforces their behaviour
- Understand your online presence and security and check your privacy settings
- Minimise your electronic footprint
- As much as possible limit personal information available on the internet
- Opt-out of the edited version of the electoral register, which is sold on to third parties, and will contain your personal details and address
- Inform the police sooner rather than later
- Make a record of any unwanted contact
- Tell family and friends
- Seek advice
Resources for victims of stalking
There is a number of organisations that can provide advice and support, through their website or helpline.