The psychology of bullying and how offenders are rehabilitated

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Forensic Psychiatrist Dr. Sohom Das writes an exclusive article for Crime + Investigationexamining the psychology of harassment as well as the preventive measures that can be taken and the process of rehabilitation of offenders.

I am a consultant in forensic psychiatry and live and work in London. I assess and rehabilitate mentally ill offenders, or what the tabloids might call the “criminal insane.” I regularly assess defendants in court, in prisons and in special secure psychiatric units reserved for the most dangerous and violent patients.

I assess harassers in my area of ​​work, particularly if their behaviors have been motivated by mental illness. As I imagine you are, I am also sometimes engrossed in reading high profile cases in the media. My psy tendencies make me naturally curious about their mentality.

What is the psychological makeup of a typical stalker?

Trick question! There is no “typical” stalker. There are many different motivations and intentions and an assortment of disparate key personality traits. Some culprits have specific mental illnesses, but some can function relatively well and even succeed. Judges, star footballers and even politicians have been accused of this kind of behavior.

Demographically, contrary to popular belief, stalking is less likely to be committed by a stranger than by an ex-partner. In fact, 80% of victims said they knew their stalkers in some form. Although abusers come in a variety of ages, shapes and sizes, the most common demographic is men in their 30s and the victims are women in their late teens and 20s.

In my clinical experience, the most common motivations include a desire to reunite with a previous relationship or a sadistic urge to torment the victim. This is often committed by culprits who may have been shunned or rejected. Surprise, surprise – they tend to be narcissistic, rights-seeking, and have very sensitive and easily bruised egos.

“How dare she leave me? Doesn’t she know how lucky she was to have me? I will show her by constantly following her!

These authors often hold deeply rooted misogynistic views, such as“You can’t trust women”. If the stalker and stalk-ee were in a previous relationship, this is often marred by controlling the “para-stalking” behavior earlier; like checking their text messages, being constantly paranoid about infidelity, and constantly wanting to know who they are with and where they are. The offender has a complete lack of insight into his strange interpersonal boundaries and feels totally justified in easily indulging in a jealous rage. Some even think their actions are romantic or passionate.

Substance abuse is strongly correlated and it is believed that around half of bullies have a problem. This is not surprising if we consider that intoxication often leads to impulsive and disinhibited behavior, the user being less contemplative of the consequences of his actions. In addition to this, about half have had a personality disorder.

Personality describes the characteristic patterns of thought, feeling, and behavior that make up who we are and how we feel about ourselves. A person with a personality disorder may experience ongoing difficulties in the way they perceive themselves and others, which negatively affects their well-being, mental health, and relationships. More than a quarter of stalkers have none of these things. If you doubt my calculations, some might have substance abuse issues and personality disorders simultaneously. what we call “comorbid disorders” in psychiatric jargon.

In terms of individual personality traits, they often have childhood anger and insecurities. Perhaps they had unsupportive or lax parental care or attention. Maybe they were overlooked for more charming, smart, or cute siblings. Maybe they were bullied at school.

Although there are exceptions, bullies often tend to be isolated and marginalized with a limited support structure. They are therefore usually socially incompetent and inexperienced. Often their targets are their primary focus simply because they don’t have much else to do in their lives. If they tend to have little romantic success, then they might cling obsessively to a previous romantic connection or a misinterpreted hint to a potential future partner.

A rare but fascinating (at least to me) subgroup would be when the abuser has a psychotic over-identification with the victim. It could involve a delusional disorder, such as erotomania; the stalker believes that another person, often prestigious or famous, is in love with them. They are disconnected from reality and are exactly the kind of people I would value; either to prepare expert evidence to assess whether their psychiatric illnesses affected their behavior (and therefore, their criminal culpability) or within the confines of secure psychiatric units (for long-term rehabilitation until I deems them safe enough to be released into society).

These delusional bullies often don’t realize what they are doing is wrong. They might be convinced that they have relationships with famous celebrities. No evidence to the contrary can shake their beliefs – amazingly, even if their victim even tells them to their face to leave them alone. A man I assessed with schizophrenia was told this by the famous target of his affections, but assumed the love denials were just a test.

These culprits are potentially easier to spot and catch; due to their erratic behavior and because they don’t try to hide their actions, which they view as grand romantic gestures. Although potentially dangerous, these people are theoretically relatively easy to treat; I can potentially sever them and the anti-psychotic drugs can potentially “cure” this type of thinking (or at least reduce it).

Of course, it’s not that easy. There are a whole host of complications, such as side effects from medication and convincing them to continue with treatment after they are released from the psychiatric unit.

The good news is that if they manage to come to terms with their psychosis after treatment and if they continue to take their medication, their risk of recurrence is actually very low. For other people, no amount of medication can reverse their behavior, and legal interventions are needed (from restraining orders to actual incarceration).

If you’re interested in the psychological processes behind a series of crimes and misdemeanors (through the lens of a forensic psychiatrist), check out my YouTube channel, A shrink for aching minds.

This video is a deep dive into harassment, including a real case.

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