By now most have heard about the three women in Cleveland who were abducted a decade ago and kept captive by men for that decade. The question I have been asked, by even other professionals, when discussing the events is “why did they not run?” and “how does someone recover from something like that?” Those are both valid questions since most of us can’t even fathom something like that occurring, but there are things from a clinical aspect that provide answers to both of those questions.
To address the first of these question in two words Stockholm Syndrome. We have all heard of Stockholm Syndrome where victims of kidnapping begin to identify with their captors and do not leave as a result, this has been the plot line of countless movies and television shows. As Discovery Health states,
“People suffering from Stockholm syndrome come to identify with and even care for their captors in a desperate, usually unconscious act of self-preservation.”
The need for self-preservation goes beyond simply the physical and also applies to the psychological side of a person. As I said before they are valid questions because we can’t imagine what it would be like to have that happen, and that is true for the victims of such crimes as well.
When a person is taken abruptly from the life they know and placed into a situation such as this their mind is forced to confront the fact it is no longer something to “imagine”, it is reality. Yes of course the first thought is how do I get away from this person? That thought though in some cases is short lived and the reality, on a conscious or unconscious level, that one may never escape sets in. The mind then plays a trick on itself.
The reality is that I can’t escape, the reality is that this is the life I am now forced to live. When this is the case the mind, sometimes, says “okay this is my situation the best way to deal with that is not only to accept it, but embrace it”. Yes embrace the person who has taken you from all that you love and care about. The mind understands the need to preserve itself so that escape at some point may be possible at a more opportune moment, and so a person is not killed for creating trouble with the captor in the meantime.
There is a second piece that at times plays a part in this, and that is the fact that the captive may feel worthless which can play into the attachment on another level. Elizabeth Smart who was kidnapped and held with her captor, even taken in public with them for 9 months said…
“I felt like my soul had been crushed. I felt like I wasn’t even human anymore. How could anybody love me, or want me or care about me? I felt like life had no more meaning to it, and that was only the beginning of my nine months of captivity.”
When this is the case of course the person will not run, if they feel that once free from captivity no one will love them because of what happened then life with the captor may be the only place they feel they are still wanted and have value. This can be likened to why women (and men) stay in abusive relationship and even return once they have left. The person can come to feel it is not the abuser, but them who is not only to blame, but who has no worth. They can feel no one else will love them and the only place where they are wanted is by the abuser, as they have no value and deserve to be treated poorly.
Now for the second question, how does one recover from this. That is a trickier item to answer as each case of abduction is different. Most generally is can be assumed that the person will end up having Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) as a result of the events while in captivity. Treatment is the key to moving past the events that transpired.
“Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a mental health problem that can occur after someone goes through a traumatic event like war, assault, or disaster.”
The key in these situations is to seek help as soon as a person can so that what has occurred can be addressed before permanent effects set in (though some effects may always be present.) Where treatment is concerned the best evidence based practices are forms of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). Below are a few examples from the American Psychological Association of treatment options for PTSD:
- Prolonged-exposure therapy, developed for use in PTSD by Keane, University of Pennsylvania psychologist Edna Foa, PhD, and Emory University psychologist Barbara O. Rothbaum, PhD. In this type of treatment, a therapist guides the client to recall traumatic memories in a controlled fashion so that clients eventually regain mastery of their thoughts and feelings around the incident. While exposing people to the very events that caused their trauma may seem counterintuitive, Rothbaum emphasizes that it’s done in a gradual, controlled and repeated manner, until the person can evaluate their circumstances realistically and understand they can safely return to the activities in their current lives that they had been avoiding. Drawing from PTSD best practices, the APA-initiated Center for Deployment Psychology includes exposure therapy in the training of psychologists and other health professionals who are or will be treating returning Iraq and Afghanistan service personnel (see “A unique training program”).
- Cognitive-processing therapy, a form of cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, developed by Boston University psychologist Patricia A. Resick, PhD, director of the women’s health sciences division of the National Center for PTSD, to treat rape victims and later applied to PTSD. This treatment includes an exposure component but places greater emphasis on cognitive strategies to help people alter erroneous thinking that has emerged because of the event. Practitioners may work with clients on false beliefs that the world is no longer safe, for example, or that they are incompetent because they have “let” a terrible event happen to them.
- Stress-inoculation training, another form of CBT, where practitioners teach clients techniques to manage and reduce anxiety, such as breathing, muscle relaxation and positive self-talk.
- Eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing, where the therapist guides clients to make eye movements or follow hand taps, for instance, at the same time they are recounting traumatic events. It’s not clear how EMDR works, and, for that reason, it’s somewhat controversial, though the therapy is supported by research, notes Dartmouth University psychologist Paula P. Schnurr, PhD, deputy executive director of the National Center for PTSD.
When these treatments are provided by trained professionals, in a timely manner, recovery from even such horrific events as a decade of captivity can be accomplished though there may remain some after effects of it even when treatment is “successful.” Events that are seemingly unrelated can create a uncontrollable response. This requires a shift not from the victim, but also their loved ones, for example understanding that a smell or sound can create a response the person is not able to consciously control. The biggest thing to remember is that while becoming a victim is not a choice, becoming a survivor is, the person must work through there issues if they are to ever overcome these events.
Written By Justin Nutt, LMSW
SJS Staff Writer