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Trauma of a victim of crime

I. Introduction

Naturally pleasant and nice experiences and situation are followed by the less pleasant ones but rarely the negative experiences are so intensive that they would lead to mental trauma.

Common situations make one hardened more likely than broken, they make one think, look for solutions and do one’s utmost to solve it. If one does not experience too many unpleasant situations, if they do not last too long and are not too intensive, one gets out instructed and strengthened for managing similar situations in future. But we are all different people and we react according to our nature. What is simple and easily manageable for one may be a complicated problem for another. It may also happen that we already have many worries and problems and suddenly one drop makes the cup overflow. Sometimes we add to problems upcoming with our nature – another time it may only be by accident – coincidence that we appear in a certain place and become victims of e.g. car accident, theft, robbery or another form of violence. Several factors lead to trauma, which usually fades away after some time, but in rare cases it leaves mark on the victim for the rest of their life. These factors are: the situation is extraordinary and accidental, you cannot foresee it, get prepared for it, you do not cause it, all these together with physical and psychic suffering lead to trauma.

Death of a close person is an example of a trauma that many people must face. It evokes the highest possible rate of life stress in the partner. The circumstances of death are very diverse and important for coping with it. What was the cause of death? Age, serious disease, car accident, violent crime? We are able to accept some causes and put up with them as with inevitable, some causes are not acceptable for us though. We ask why this happened. We look for rational explanation, which unfortunately does not exist in these situations. The less natural the circumstances are the more difficult it is to put up with them. It is very important for victims that the crime is well investigated and the verdict is just. We often witness years-long effort of families who do their utmost to reach verdict for the perpetrator. According to our most renowned psychiatrist in the field of criminality the best therapy for victim of violent crimes is death sentence for the perpetrator. Our present legal order does not permit death sentence. Trial where the primary importance would be focused on protection and promotion of victims’ rights could have the same meaning. Feeling safe is one of the basic psychological needs and one of the basic citizen’s rights. Once the state took on responsibility for citizens, it must take steps when this duty was not filled towards a citizen. Duties of the state towards citizen – perpetrator - are specified very exactly unlike duties towards citizen – victim of crime - which are not specified enough.

II. How do people who became victimized react?

Nowadays the risk that people become victims of crime if higher than it used to be in past especially in some cities such as Teplice, Ostrava, Olomouc or in some areas of entrepreneurship.
The most serious crimes represent only a small percent of all the crimes. But even a crime of a lower importance can have traumatizing effect on its victim who has difficulties coming back into normal life.

Physically strong older man was coming back home around 10 p.m. passing a well-lit parking place. He saw off his relatives and found this way safer than using sidewalk, which was not lit. He was attacked here by a drunken young man who blamed him from breaking into cars. The drunken man got the older man’s shoulder out of joint; he dragged him away to a close pub and called for police. He threatened the shocked older man and boasted with good relationship with police; his behaviour after the police arrived was very confident. The attacked man was disillusioned by the development of the whole situation. He had the feeling police treated him worse than the real aggressor. Even though his innocence was quickly proved, nobody apologized to him, moreover the aggressor who lived close, kept threatening him. The older man who used to be fearless and social, started to fear, he stopped coming out of his flat, he was feared of meeting the aggressor, he felt unable to defend himself. He suffered a very painful injury, which had to be cured long-term, moreover it will have permanent consequences – his shoulder has limited mobility. He was followed by a feeling of absolute abnormality and therefore was forced to look for help.

Not every crime must cause trauma to the victim for example theft of a purse upsets us and causes lots of small inconveniences. But for someone who is not well off even loss of a small amount of money may be very painful. Crimes with physical or psychic suffering are usually the most traumatizing ones. If such acting leads to serious injury or death, the family and close relatives are traumatized. Sometimes the intensity of suffering may be lower but can last long period for example in cases of domestic violence, abuse of women and children, sexual abuse of children, bullying at school or in military service. You may recall cases when the long-termed abused person took up for extreme solution – attempted suicide or attacked the aggressor.

There are three factors, which determine how the crime affects the victim. The first one is actual state of victim (both physical and psychic) before crime. Process of crime itself is the second factor. Crime may last from couple of seconds to long-termed torment that the victim must face. Consequence of events after crime is the third factor. How first savers, police, doctor, relatives, neighbours, colleagues at work and others, treat the victim. We can hardly influence the first two factors. But the third one is crucial, we all can influence how we treat victim how we talk to them and how effectively we are able to help.

III. What does a person traumatized with crime go through?

Feeling of guilt is experienced in the first place. Victims blame themselves for what happened to them and reactions of the people around sometimes support this. It is also the perpetrator who tries to evoke feeling of guilt and put the reveal of crime off. People seized by sudden whirl of negative emotions, surprise, fear, disorientation, helplessness, physical pain need to find balance and control over their life.
Therefore they are looking for answers: “Why has this happened? Why me?“ But there is very often no causal chain of events and therefore answers cannot be found. But victims often think there must be a cause and so start looking for it in them. Even in cases of our carelessness for example when we leave our bag open somewhere we cannot speak about guilt. In a country where there is a legal system we have the right to walk in streets and not to be stolen things. Even if the state is not able to prevent all crimes from happening they must ensure citizens´ safety and not to transfer the responsibility on individuals. Becoming a victim is not a shame or fault of the victim.
It is quite common that victims lose self-confidence. Everyone is used to manage and plan their own lives and all of a sudden something so irrational and destructive as crime intrudes their life. It is understandable that it shakes self-confidence especially if it was not very high before the crime.
Feeling lonely and abandoned belongs to the negative reactions too. Intensive negative experiences are difficult to share, sometimes victims do not want to speak about it because it hurts when the reaction of people around is not as they would imagine. Sometimes victims feels as if it did not happen as if it was only a dream, something unreal and hope they will wake up into normal world which will work as before.
Sometimes they are afraid the crime would repeat that the perpetrator knows their name and address and they could hurt them again. The perpetrator sometimes evokes this fear on purpose so that they would discourage the victim in criminal proceedings. Victims of breaking in have strong fear that the crime would repeat because the perpetrator was in their flat or cottage, he touched their things read and saw personal things.

Victim of attempt of murder – educated woman – lived in fear all the time when the perpetrator was in prison, she was feared of future and before his release she even changed her address. She did not know the perpetrator before but he blamed her for helping in catching him and he threatened her with vendetta.

We mentioned only examples of possible feelings that victims experience. Only some reactions or a whole number of psychological changes may appear depending on psychic state, actual circumstances and life situation. The strength if the reaction is also very different. Usually it is a question of couple of hours or several days but sometimes it is a long-term matter and in extremely serious cases there are permanent changes. We can assume that all victims of violent crimes, survivors and crimes of neglect and survivors of car accidents caused by alcohol suffer serious trauma.
Mental reactions go hand in hand with physical reactions, which appear either right after the crime, or with a longer time period when the causal sequence is not so visible. Psychosomatic problems may arise up to within two years after crime.
Weakness, increased tiredness, heart problems such as pressure on chest, irregular heart rhythm, stomach problems, loss of appetite, diarrhoea, headache, weeping belong to common physical symptoms. Mentioned psychic and physical reactions do not occur isolated but accompany behaviour of the victim. The change of usual behaviour may be a sign for the surroundings that something is happening with the person. For example bullying at school or family life may cause a sudden and unexplainable change of behaviour of a child. Some behavioural changes may be regarded call for help.

Lets summarize the most common psychic and physical reactions of victims of crimes. The summary should make it easier for us if we ourselves or someone we know find in the position of victims:

  • feeling guilty;
  • loss of self-confidence;
  • feeling of unreality;
  • fear;
  • feeling uncertain;
  • worse memory;
  • rational abilities worsening and thinking slow down;
  • lower concentration and attention;
  • changes moods;
  • intensified need of care and sympathy;
  • physical weakness;
  • heart problems;
  • stomach problems;
  • headache;
  • weeping;
  • stiffing up to paralysing.

IV. How to overcome trauma?

Harmony and full life is the best prevention. Even then we can become victims of crime because everyone is a potentional victim but if it happens then they put all their energy to fighting trauma and comes back to normal life quite quickly and without bigger after-effects. But most people have weak sides, which go forth at the time of crises. May it be bad traits, lower nervous system resistance, family problems, piled problems etc.

A young girl was dating a boy who would see her family and was considered a nice boy although in privacy he was violent towards the girl. When she wanted to break up he raped her in his flat holding a knife on her neck. The injured girl reported everything to the police and expected that her parents would support her. She was very disappointed when her parents and even younger sister stood against her because in their opinion it was her who caused all the problems they had to face. The marriage of her parents was problematic, after this it broke up completely.

We can say that reaction to crises situation – crime – are very individual and depend on the nature of the victim as well as on experience with similar situation.
Still there are certain common features. Reaction to traumatizing situation has following phases:

First phase – shock
This phase comes right away after attack. Confused behaviour or stiffing, stiffing from fear which is followed by confused behaviour is typical. Victim not only acts in a confused way but also feels like that. They cannot believe what they have just experienced. The above-mentioned psychic reactions occur. This phase can last from several hours up to several days. In cases of physical violence the trauma is deeper.

Second phase – reaction, coming adaptation
Victim starts to cope with new situation. Behaviour is still full of emotional changes but first attempts at rational view of the situation occur. They are not permanent though; they come up and disappear like emotional sways. There are two main tendencies in the behaviour of victim. For the first one it is typical that the victim gets back to the experienced situation again and again, they talk bout it, experience the negative emotion again and compares opinions of people around with his/her behaviour. Second tendency is opposite, victims do not want to speak about the suffering they went through, they are reserved and try to hide their natural feelings.
Adaptation to the experienced situation is gradual, victim only very slowly accepts new situation. The original feelings of despair and sadness are replaced by understanding and rational view of the whole situation. Emotional sways are quite frequent; victim behaves just like right after the crime for a short time – weeping helplessness, loss of sense of life and perspective. Length of this phase is again individual. it can last up to one year in extreme cases.

Third phase – final adaptation, new orientation
Psychic reorganization of the victim’s personality is the substance of this phase. The victim gets together. Their feelings are not fully bound with the experienced event; memories slowly loose its emotional charge. Sometimes there is an attempt at minimalization of the whole event. The victim gradually comes back to their normal life. But never really forgets the experienced trauma.
There are many opportunities to cause secondary victimization in this period, which is rather long and still quite difficult for victim. It is caused by insensitive treating of victim: sending papers to be filled in which do not have good formulations, insensitive questioning, improper remarks of staff in hospitals, reproaches of family members, sensation news about the crime in media, criminal proceedings (repeated questioning, confrontation with the perpetrator, trial, low sentence for the perpetrator…). Each of these things may give the victim feeling of unjustness, humbleness, and loss of dignity and can deepen posttraumatic changes.
Moreover people have the tendency to avoid victim. Partly because they are at a loss how to treat them and partly because conviction that complicity on the victim’s side for what happened survives. These opinions are very strongly connected with rape and domestic violence (beating, torment, restricting human freedom, blackmailing, threatening). As if people around felt responsibility for what happened and want to get rid of the responsibility. If they can say it was victim’s fault, it is a good alibi for them and calms their consciousness. They persuade themselves – victim does not need sympathy and understanding. Traumatized person is sensitive to all manifestations from the surroundings and feels changes in people’s attitudes very quickly; mutual relationships loose genuiness and sometimes disappear. It happens in wider families, at work as well as where people live.
The length that the victim is exposed to crime is different for different crimes. For example robbery may last couple of seconds. Abuse, sexual abuse, domestic violence and bullying may last months even years. To get over the trauma, it is necessary to get the victim out of perpetrators presence and interrupt further traumatizing. It is not quite as easy as it could seem at first look. It requires personal courage and braveness from all the people involved, for example to call for help in situations that we ourselves cannot manage, to report abuse or sexual abuse even when we cause problems to us etc.
This does not mean we should seek for victims instead of police. But it means that we will not be indifferent to violence around us and we will take steps according to our possibilities although it is not our professional duty. It means that we will not be indifferent to suffering of those who cannot help themselves.

V. How can we help victim?

There is no universal manual how to effectively help in concrete case. Attentive reader knows that there are many diverse circumstances that may happen. Here are several general recommendations:

Do not be sorry for the victim
By being sorry we could deepen their subjective feelings about the extend of their injury and we do not support their comeback to normal life. What we have to show to the victim is sympathy with him or her as with human being who had to face misfortune. We can do it in all different ways that are pleasant for the victim. For example we can hold their hand, stroke them, smile at them, fulfil their wish. There are many possibilities how to show sympathy. When we know the person, we know what they like; when we do not know them, we do what is generally regarded pleasant and nice and observe their reaction. Certain amount of sorry will be accepted from the close people.

Do not reproach the victim with anything
This reaction is pretty frequent especially in the family. The closest people should become victim’s support and not judge. “What would happen if…” remarks worsen their trauma. The one who has never been victimized cannot judge how they would react in similar situation.

Do not try to controvert any opinion
Especially in the first hours after the crime. It is better to let the emotions flow as they come, let them speak out even when they speak confusingly, illogically and repeat everything. Show them love and understanding and be endlessly patient. Be positive in the moments when they want to overcome the trauma and come back to normal lifestyle. We already know that behaviour after crime has some specifics. Only later on we can require keeping to some habits that used to be normal before. E.g. personal hygiene. Keeping to the good habits is a bridge to normal life. If the victimized person has responsibility towards other people e.g. children, feeling responsible is a big help for overcoming own suffering. It is known that for example in cases of catastrophes those who help others have smaller psychic consequences than those who passively expect help from others. When the victim is interested in the investigation and is active in it helps their rehabilitation. On the other hand they can be disappointed when things do not develop according to their wish.

We make background for the victim
It is important that victims have someone close who supports them. Do not leave them alone unless they wish so, but even than be there if they need you.

First aid from a layperson
If we get in touch with victim right after physical attack, we should act as the situation requires. If it is necessary we call police and ambulance, we provide first aid and make sure they are warm and quiet. Do not leave victim alone. But do not force physical contact. But if they need to hold your hand, do not refuse it. Do not ask about circumstances, do not feel sorry for them, just be compassionate. Make sure their dignity is preserved, e.g. cover their naked parts. Etc. Although care for the victim is on the first place, we should not destroy the evidence there is about the crime which could lead to identification of the perpetrator. Following the perpetrator is also secondary and could be dangerous. Laypersons can easily understand the behaviour of the victim in such cases. But acting of people who were traumatized for a long time (e.g. abused children, sexually abused children, victims of domestic violence) may seem difficult to understand. We want to help them but they accept our help with distrust, they do not show any thankfulness. This behaviour discourages many people; they do not have enough experience and patience to know that distrust or even suspicion is typical for these victims. They do not believe someone could help them. They live in their own world, do not show emotions and have bad feelings about themselves.
It is much more difficult to make contact with them than in the first case when the victim himself seeks help.

VI. Where to look for help?

Most victims do not need professional care to overcome trauma. Their relatives, friends, colleagues and other people who know how to listen to people help them to overcome the hardship. Time is an important factor in all cases. Even those people who have support miss information about criminal proceedings, their rights and possibilities how to reach them.
But there are also lonely people who have noone to share their problems with or people who are not able to cope with the problem and their unpleasant feelings do not disappear or get worse. It is a good solution to turn to a trustworthy person in their surroundings or to professionals such as a doctor, psychologist, and psychiatrist. Specialized non-stop places of help can be found in cities, these are different help lines, crises centres, for example RIAPS in Prague – Regional Institute of Ambulant Psychosocial Services. Victims can turn to any psychologist with their problems, the contact can be found in Yellow Pages.
Bily kruh bezpeci works in the Czech republic since 1991 – national organization for victim services. Counselling centres providing free of charge and discrete counselling can be found in Brno, Olomouc, Ostrava, Pardubice, Plzeň and Praha. Counselling centres provide especially legal and psychological advice and information. Non-standard services are provided in special cases, for example accompaniment to court, preparation for trial, weekend psychological recovery stays, cross-border help, and other services. Bily kruh bezpeci is successful in promoting better status of victims of crime, especially their rights in criminal proceeding. BKB also organizes lectures and trainings – Communication with victims for police – a week training of the police, which changes the enforcement of law in practice. BKB helps victims and families to solve their problems.

The authors wish that you never need the mentioned advice.

Text: PhDr. Pavla Vyhlidalova
Copyright Bily kruh bezpeci 2005

The executive board of Bílý Kruh Bezpečí grants permission to use and distribute materials placed on this website by course of law 121/2000 Sb., Copyright Act, on condition that the copies will only be used for noncommercial informative purpose, the writing will be neither modified or changed, the graphic components (graphs and charts) will be neither copied or distributed separately from related text and vice-versa. "Copyright Bílý kruh bezpečí, z.s." must be visibly stated on every copy.

Approved by the Executive board of Bílý kruh bezpečí, z.s. 21.4.2007