20 July 2015

Taking a look at stalking

CyberShrink analyses the phenomenon of stalking and explains why people may feel the need to stalk others.


People have been stalked for a long time, but stalking is only now starting to be recognized as a psychologically damaging form of assault – and still being handled very badly by the police and legal system.   

Unwelcome and intrusive contact

Stalking is related to obsessive perversions of love. It is often seen between people who knew each other very well, as lovers or friends. One of them may handle the break-up really badly and maintain unwelcome and intrusive contact with their former lover or friend. 

Read: Is it love or is it jealousy?

Variations on this theme turn up on the CyberShrink forum. We hear from men and women who intellectually know that a relationship or even marriage is over, but emotionally refuse to accept the fact, and end up harassing their former associate.

Even when not in direct contact, they may continue to watch their “ex”, perhaps cruising past their place of work, keeping tabs on their friends and finding out who they’re going out with. It’s a form of possessiveness, of refusing to let go. They remain emotionally stuck in defunct relationships and cannot move on. 

Read: Jealousy's two sides

Some stalkers seem to suffer from a rare psychiatric disorder, de Clérambault's syndrome, or Erotomania, in which someone, usually a young woman, develops the delusional idea that someone famous, whom she considers of higher social or professional standing, is in love with her. He’s a secret admirer, revealing love in subtle ways, with significant but barely noticeable glances, or public messages with special meanings unnoticed by others. She then writes or sends gifts to, or visits the person, who naturally has no idea who she is. She ignores discouragement, assuming the rejection of her advances is just a tactic to hide this secret love from the general public. 

Stalking by proxy

With the modern phenomenon of celebrity culture, there are many people in the public eye who are regular “visitors” in our living rooms. We forget they’re only on our TV sets and the sense of knowing them merges into the feeling that the celebrity also ought to know us.  

When you’re an attention addict, like a Kardashian, thriving on and profiting from near constant attention, it’s confusing for those you have trained to obsess about you, to find that they’ve not actually been invited into your lives.    

Read: Overdose of celebrity

But the media have now normalised such obsessions and endless celebrity gossip in magazines and the unreal “reality” shows on TV makes it seem quite normal to obsess about the details of someone else’s life. Indeed, obsessing over “stars” in this way has become stalking by proxy. 

After all, what are the paparazzi but stalkers for pay, who haunt others on your behalf, and allow you to enjoy them voyeuristically from the comfort of your own home?

The internet trolls who spend so much time following and either praising or criticizing others are technologically enabled stalkers, and do so with greater impunity than ever before – as they can be intrusive and offensive from another country or even continent. 

Rejected and humiliated

It’s so easy for complete strangers to form a delusional fantasy relationship with you. Someone’s strong admiration for a person (or persona played by that person) starts to become an imaginary relationship, a feeling that their life and yours are somehow linked. This admirer now feels that the celebrity owes them something in return. Imagining that this is a reciprocal relationship they easily feel rejected and humiliated and may become hostile and angry.  

Read: Breakup can trigger depression

The stalker’s target understandably does not want any relationship, so this “unrequired love” is bound to end in tears. It may even lead to arrest, criminal charges and restraining order. This may be traumatic for the stalker but it is necessary that the “victim” asserts their autonomy and make the stalker firmly aware of the reality of the situation.

The British Crime Survey over years has shown that between a third and half of all victims of stalking are men, though men don’t usually report it and the police and judges don’t take it seriously enough when they do.  

Like domestic violence, stalking is damaging to the victim and needs to be dealt with. Stalkers want to exert control over their targets. There’s the always the risk that they may move from wanting to please you to wanting to punish or even harm you. The invasion of the victim’s private space can cause distress and a sense of intrusion and violation.

Depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder

That there can be real physical risk should never be ignored. American researchers estimate that up to 25% of significant stalking ends in real violence. Some estimate a 2% risk of murder or manslaughter.  90% of women who are eventually killed by an ex-partner, were previously stalked by him.

Read: Subtle signs of domestic violence

A major American survey of 8,000 men and 8,000 women found that 8% of women and 2% of men had been stalked at some time. Only half of all cases are reported to the police. 25% lead to arrest, and only 12 % lead to criminal prosecution – and that’s in a country with effective police and courts. 

There’s been very little useful research into how stalking affects people, but it can cause depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. The smaller but persistent personal changes in the victim are also harmful. You become much more cautious, suspicious, and aggressive; you change your routines, double-check your home alarms and change your phone numbers.  

We don’t begin by wanting our stalker to be jailed; we just want their harassment and pestering to stop. If it’s allowed to continue for more than a couple of weeks, it tends to become chronic and forms part of the stalker’s daily routine.

One should never form a real relationship with the stalker. You may once tell them directly and calmly that you don’t want and will not accept any form of relationship with them. Getting into prolonged discussions or negotiations only makes things worse.


Shrinks are often targets of stalkers. Maclean & colleagues in 2013 surveyed nearly a quarter of British psychiatrists, and nearly 11 per cent said they had been stalked. Some coped better than others, and most of them said they found it difficult to get suitable support.

Read: Need a shrink?

McIvor and colleagues questioned just over 300 psychiatrists in a large mental health organization, and 41%, mainly consultants, reported being stalked by patients.  Most stalkers were men, with personality disorder or major mental illness.

A German study by Krammer & others of psychiatrists and psychologists in Graz, found that nearly 40% had experienced stalking, especially from female patients, making non-violent threats. The patients mainly suffered from schizophrenia, delusional disorders, or personality disorder, and around 40% of the shrinks developed mild symptoms of PTSD.

Have you ever been stalked? Share your experiences with us.

Read more:

Relationship over?

When somebody’s watching you . . .

Ask your psychiatrist


- Psychiatrists' experiences of being stalked: a qualitative analysis. L Maclean, D Reiss, S Whyte etc.

J Am Acad Psychiatry Law. 2013; 41(2):193-9.

- Stalking behaviour by patients towards psychiatrists in a large mental health organisation. RJ McIvor, L Potter, L Davies. Int J Soc Psychiatry. 2008 Jul; 54(4): 350-7.

- The effects of stalking on psychiatrists, psychotherapists and psychologists. Prevalence of stalking and its emotional impact]. In German. A Krammer, A Stepan, A Baranyi, etc. Nervenarzt. 2007 Jul; 78(7): 809-17.

- Research on stalking: what do we know and where do we go? KE Davis, IH Frieze. Violence Vict. 2000 Winter; 15(4): 473-87.

Image: Stalker from Shutterstock

Professor MA Simpson is Health24's CyberShrink. A South African psychiatrist, he qualified in medicine and in psychiatry in Britain. He has been a senior academic, researcher, and Professor in several countries. Read more of his columns.


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