Mental trauma
Generally, crime victims have to cope with a number of consequences, both of a psychological and a physical nature. While many know and are aware of financial damage and physical injury caused by a crime, the traumatic experiences suffered by victims of crime and the consequences this has for them remain mostly in the dark.

Crime victims suffering from mental trauma often describe the way they feel as: “Nothing will ever be the same as it was before”.

Even though a majority of crime victims tend to describe the consequences of crime in such a manner, the symptoms and suffering experienced by crime victims were recognised only recently as disorders requiring treatment. While as far back as 200 years ago medical literature occasionally reported on psychological problems experienced by people who were exposed to war incidents, natural disasters or violent crime, it was not until the 1980s that uniform criteria were developed for categorising the impact of mental trauma.

The term trauma comes from the Greek word for injury. The World Health Organisation defines mental traumas as follows:

  • “event or situation (either short- or long-lasting) of an exceptionally threatening or catastrophic nature, which is likely to cause pervasive distress in almost anyone” (ICD-10, WHO, 1994, p. 120).

An event is traumatic if the mental or physical integrity of a person comes apart or is seriously threatened.
The capabilities of the person to control the situation they are in fail and they feel helpless and powerless, exposed to the situation. This feeling of powerlessness results in the victim’s self-image and understanding of the world being profoundly and lastingly shaken.

As a consequence of having something inflicted upon them by other people, crime victims frequently lose all trust and confidence in others. Some victims develop a deep mistrust of other people, leading them to withdraw completely from society.

Frequently, crime victims suffer from psychosomatic consequences, i.e. physical reactions to mental distress. Certain triggers, such as a sound that reminds them of the crime, will trigger not only memories, but also stress reactions in the body, such as tachycardia or rising blood pressure, which in turn may lead to disorders such as chronically high blood pressure or heart attacks.

Another symptom experienced by traumatised crime victims is a chronically pessimistic outlook on life. This makes itself felt in a state of general passivity or a loss of self-esteem, also with respect to coping with the tasks and duties of daily life.

3 Stages:
  • First of all, the traumatic event will trigger a shock reaction, which may manifest itself as agitation, confusion, sadness, inability to remember important dates, anger or numbness and may take from one hour to several days.
  • This is followed by the trauma impact stage, which may last two to four weeks. During this phase, acute stress reactions start to subside, while inwardly the victims are completely preoccupied with the event. They experience strong self-doubt, frequently also hopelessness, depression, feelings of powerlessness or of a doomed future. Some suffer from feelings of guilt because they think they made mistakes, while others experience rage and voice strong accusations against the people suspected to have caused it.
  • During the subsequent recovery stage, some victims begin to recover from trauma. The traumatic event still remains the centre of attention and it may take a long time to get over it, i.e. to integrate it into one’s view of the world and one’s perception of oneself.

Post-traumatic stress disorder:
  • If major symptoms continue beyond a period of four weeks – without the onset of the recovery phase – experts speak of a post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • Typical symptoms of this stress disorder include repeated reliving of the traumatic event, avoidance of certain situations and locations that might trigger reliving the event, as well as increased irritability.
    • Victims of violent crimes often exhibit specific characteristics in their mental state. They exhibit the classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, but because their suffering was inflicted intentionally by people, their relationship with other people and their whole social life is affected.They withdraw from the world, are less able to establish contact with others and become socially isolated. As a consequence, avoidance is particularly strong among victims of violent crime, who now feel threatened in numerous social situations. Persistent and generalised fear as well as psychosomatic problems may ensue.