This module is a resource for lecturers
Topic two: The impact of crime, including trauma
Note to lecturers
This may be a difficult topic for students who have themselves experienced trauma or who may suffer from post-traumatic stress. It is advised that lecturers start the session by explaining that students may leave the class if they find the content stressful, and that there will be no adverse consequences for this (no loss of grade, for example). Lecturers should extend an invitation, to the whole class, that students are welcome to contact the lecturer directly after class if they wish to discuss. It may also be appropriate for lecturers to prepare basic information on access to victim support services at the local level, in case students would like to contact services of this kind. This information should be made available to students in a way that respects students' privacy (i.e. the information could be placed on an online bulletin board, or on notice-boards in common areas where students can record the information discretely, should they wish to).
At some point in our lives many of us have been victim of a criminal offence, or at least close to someone who has. These crimes may range from petty crime, such as a thief stealing a purse, to serious crimes, including assault, robbery, sexual violence or even murder. It is important to understand that reactions may not necessarily be the same for everyone, nor are reactions always proportionate to the gravity of the offence (as in a criminal law perspective). There is no "right way" to react to crime.
Following a crime, victims may feel angry, depressed, isolated, fearful, experience negative feelings or have problems sleeping. They may be worried about very practical issues such as making an insurance claim, receiving medical treatment, or being unable to go to work the next day. Crime may have emotional and psychological impacts, physical consequences, and may result in financial loss and/or in social consequences, such as tension within the family.
Victims' personal characteristics, experiences and social interactions impact on their ability to cope with victimization, depending on their vulnerability and resilience. This in turn influences the type of support that a victim requires (Wedlock and Tapley, 2016). Victim needs may also vary depending on the type of crime experienced. For instance, victims of trafficking in persons who find themselves abroad and may need some clarity as to the legal and practical question of whether they can and should remain in the country where they are at the time the crime is discovered or whether they can return, or will be forced to return, to their country of origin. Further materials on these issues are available in the E4J Module Series on Trafficking in Persons and Smuggling of Migrants.
Individuals may also have specific needs that determine the supports that they require. A victim with a hearing disability will need to be provided information in a different way and may need support with communicating. In understanding the impact that a crime may have on a victim it is also important to consider the personal situation and circumstances of the victim. A victim who has recently lost a family member and is in mourning at the time of the crime, is likely to be more impacted by the crime than someone who did not have any recent experience affecting their psychological well-being.
Understanding trauma and how it may affect victims
To properly understand the needs of victims it may be useful to understand the adverse psychological impacts that crime bears. Negative events, including being a victim of a crime, may induce a sense of powerlessness. This has the potential to impact negatively on self-esteem and can lead to isolation. When the experience of victimization constitutes a trauma, it may have a negative impact on mental health and, in some cases, lead to serious mental health conditions such as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The effects of trauma can occur in the immediate aftermath of the crime or at a later stage. They can be felt for a short period of time or have the potential to affect the victim for the longer term.
The following emotional and behavioural conditions may be experienced by victims:
- A feeling of fear
- A feeling of loss of control
- A feeling of helplessness
- Suicidal ideas
- Attempted or actual suicide
- Substance abuse
- Sensation seeking behaviours
These are all symptoms of PTSD, but it is important to note that victims may experience one or more of these issues, either temporarily or over the longer term. These issues are not felt only by victims who develop PTSD.
Trauma can be caused both by a single act (attempted murder, assault, robbery) or repeated traumatic experiences (such as domestic violence, child abuse, kidnapping, extortion, or repeated act of violence experienced by soldiers in conflict zones) leading to the so called chronic posttraumatic stress disorder (Hermann, 1992).
If there is a combination of damages (e.g. physical damage in addition to emotional and or economic/material damage) following the victimization, it is likely that the victim is affected more severely than if there is just a single factor. Prior or ongoing vulnerabilities like physical or mental disabilities, prior history of trauma, and lack of support make an individual more susceptible to trauma.
However, there can also be protective factors that make an individual less prone to develop trauma, including individual as well as contextual aspects. Such protective factors include resiliency, i.e. the individual's capacity to resist and cope with negative stressful event ( Christiansen and Evans, 2005; Cicchetti and Rogosch, 1997). Individuals may not be aware that they possess such coping skills until they are confronted with a traumatic experience. Constructive coping strategies that have the potential to mitigate the impact of crime include:
- Being able to acknowledge one's own suffering and need for help;
- Being able to ask for help; and
- Being able to express bereavement and mourning.
Victims, their relatives and friends, and the professionals dealing with them should not force a victim to deny or suppress their reactions to trauma or victimization: instead encouraging victims to express their feelings is a positive support mechanism. Moreover, where necessary, victims should be referred to professional assistance and support, including, as appropriate, medical and psychological assistance. Professionals who render this assistance should, as far as possible, be specialized in trauma-informed care.
In this context, it is important to note that trauma and PTSD may affect the ability of victims to communicate about their experience. Victims may not remember details of the crime in the same way that an objective observer would remember them. Their brain may have blocked some part of their memory, while other parts are vivid in their minds. They may contradict themselves when questioned about events because of traumatic memory loss or confusion. Victims may be in a state of dissociation where they may be unable to fully express their needs or may be only able to do so with some delay. It is important that criminal justice practitioners, and others in contact with victims, bear these factors in mind when communicating with victims and interviewing them, including during criminal proceedings. First-responders to crime should be trained in recognizing the signs of trauma to avoid subjecting victims to secondary traumatization by making them tell their story when they are not ready, and they should also be prepared to refer victims to specialized support services.
It is also important that while victims should be able to access treatment when needed, they should not be "pathologized". Instead, it is important that all victims are taken seriously and treated with respect and dignity.
Symptoms of trauma (adapted from DSM V, 2015)
Hyper-vigilance / hyperarousal
- Continuous state of alert
- Implies sleep disturbance and of concentration
- Anxiety, eating disorder, interpersonal disorder
- Constant fear of re-occurrence of the event or of images
- The traumatic memory is constantly present regardless of its state of consciousness
- It does not follow the same rules of the other memory events
- Perception of no link between the traumatic event and consciousness
- Intrusion of unwanted cognitive distortions
- Victim might have nightmares
- Compulsory play (in children)
- Impossible to react (self-defence)
- Tendency to give in
- The victim cannot react, psychologically dissociated
- Impossible to take any action - "I felt I could not scream, nor move. I was immobilized, as if I were a doll".
- As a reaction to trauma: terrorized, calm (false, no pain)
- Desensitized (sight, behaviour) - trance
- Use of drug or alcohol to remain in an unconscious mood
- To regain control over own life, traumatized victims restrain their lives - "I was terrified to go anywhere ... I felt too vulnerable and I could not go anywhere … I would stay at home". "I have cut all my hair. I did not want to attract anybody …"