Crime affects us all. Any person can be affected by crime and violence either by experiencing it directly or indirectly, such as witnessing violence or property crimes in their community or hearing about crime and violence from other residents, or on the media. Crime has significant, yet varying consequences on individual crime victims, their families and friends, and communities. The impact of crime on victims results in emotional and psychological, physical, financial, social and spiritual consequences.
Studies have shown that the biological effects of violence have become increasingly better understood and include effects on the brain, neuroendocrine system, and immune response.
Psychological consequences include increased incidences of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and suicide; increased risk of cardiovascular disease; and premature mortality. The health consequences of violence vary with the age and sex of the victim as well as the form of violence. People can be the victims of multiple forms of violence, and the health effects can be cumulative.
Short Term Reactions in the aftermath of Crime
According to Kirkpatrick (2000), writing on the ‘Mental Health Impact of Rape’; short-term trauma occurs during or immediately after the crime and lasts for about three months.
This time frame for short-term versus long-term trauma is based on several studies showing that most crime victims achieve considerable recovery sometime between one and three months after the crime.
Some common responses to trauma include the following:
Few crime victims are anticipating a violent assault as the crime occurs, so most are shocked, surprised, and terrified when it happens.
Crime victims often have feelings of unreality when an assault occurs and think, “This can’t be happening to me.”
People who have been victimized in the past are at greater risk of developing emotional problems than newly victimized individuals. Victims do not “get used to it.”
Many victims of violent crime describe experiencing extremely high levels of physiological anxiety, including rapid heart rate, hyperventilation, and stomach distress.
Crime victims often experience cognitive symptoms of anxiety, including feeling terrified, helpless, guilty, or out of control.
Such physiological and emotional reactions are normal “flight or fight” responses that occur in dangerous situations.
In the days, weeks, and first two or three months after the crime, most victims of violent crime continue to have high levels of fear, anxiety, and generalized distress.
The following are examples of distress that may disrupt crime victims’ ability to perform simple mental activities requiring concentration:
They are preoccupied with the crime; they think about it a great deal, talk about it, or have flashbacks and bad dreams about it.
They are often concerned about their safety from attack and about the safety of their family members.
They are concerned that other people will not believe them or will think that they were to blame for what happened.
Many victims also experience negative changes in their belief systems and no longer think that the world is a safe place where they can trust other people.
For victims of some crimes, such as child abuse or domestic violence, the trauma occurs many times over a period of weeks, months, or even years. Victims in such cases often experience the compounded traumatic effects of having to always worry about when the next attack will occur.
Long Term Reaction in the Aftermath of Crime
Most victims of crime can cope with the trauma of victimization. This is especially true of those who receive counselling, other supportive services, and/or information about justice processes and their relevant rights. However, if victim trauma is neither identified nor addressed with mental health assistance, the initial and short-term trauma reactions can exacerbate and turn into long-term trauma reactions, including:
Thoughts of suicide and suicide attempts.
Use and abuse of alcohol and other drugs.
Ongoing problems with relationships.
A changing view of the world as a safe place.
Increased risk of further victimization.
Dealing with Crime in Society
As a society it is imperative that crime be dealt with as a matter of priority. Addressing exposure to crime and violence as a public health issue may help prevent and reduce the harms to individual and community health and well-being.
Public health strategies to address crime and violence should focus on building resilience and reducing susceptibility, building healthy gender norms, developing healthy relationships, and creating protective environments.
The Police Force and other policy making stakeholders, can recommend universal school-based programmes that focus on skill-building related to emotional self-awareness and control, social problem-solving, and teamwork to reduce or prevent violent behaviour among school-aged children. Much of the evidence on strategies to prevent and reduce crime and violence focus on children and adolescents, but additional research and interventions are needed to address crime and violence throughout the entire life course.
The scope of the problem of violence demands that attention be paid to primary prevention, and not just treatment of the victims (and perpetrators) with secondary and tertiary prevention programmes. True justice for the victims demands it.