Picture 100 people in a room. How many would you suppose have been the victim of a robbery, burglary or assault? Dr. Michael McCart, a psychologist and past clinician at the National Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center in South Carolina, has the answer.
A&E tells the stories of average people who are survivors of a crime—from the moments they first recognized the danger, through the potential long-lasting effects on their lives—with the series I Survived a Crime. (New episodes air Wednesdays at 10/9c.) The show features quick-thinking, resilient individuals who were able to protect themselves or their families when confronted with a terrifying situation. [Watch full episodes.]
McCart, now a senior scientist at the Oregon Social Learning Center, spoke with A&E Real Crime about how a sudden, unwelcome event affects a survivor, and what that person can do to get help later.
How likely is it the average person has been the victim of a robbery, burglary or assault? Say, out of 100 randomly chosen Americans.
The majority, absolutely. I would say well over 50 percent and probably closer to 70 percent. Crime victimization in general in the United States is prevalent, and for burglaries, robberies or physical assaults, the rates are quite high.
What happens to someone in the near-term aftermath of being a crime victim?
When someone experiences an event like that, there are some common symptoms afterward: heightened anxiety, difficulty sleeping, maybe a disrupted appetite, irritability, depression—a feeling that they’re unsettled. They’re also maybe having recurring thoughts about the event that run through their mind.
I want to emphasize that all of those things are…a normative response to any traumatic event.
When you say ‘recurring thoughts,’ what are they about?
Thoughts about the event itself, as if you were replaying it in your mind. Sometimes, people will talk about that as a ‘flashback.’ They call it a ‘re-experiencing syndrome.’ It’s extraordinarily common for people to go through that.
On top of that, it’s also common for people to feel as if they should have responded in a different way. They should have ‘anticipated’ that an event was going to occur. So, there can be some self-judgment on an action you took or didn’t take.
How often do victims of crimes like robberies, burglaries and assaults seek psychological help?
It’s the minority—typically five to 15 percent of crime victims—who go on to develop a chronic mental health concern. But even there—let’s go back to the idea of ‘100 people in a room’—there would be 10 folks, one month out, who could benefit from meeting with a mental health counselor. Unfortunately, out of those 10, only about half will. On a practical level, some communities might not have accessible services. Or maybe there are providers in your area, but [the victim has] financial constraints.
The vast majority of crime victims are going to have symptoms mentioned earlier. However, one of the things we’ve learned is that human beings are remarkably resilient and that for a large number of individuals, after two, three or four weeks have passed, those symptoms begin to dissipate.
Does the specific crime ever dictate treatment later on?
The crime itself doesn’t dictate treatment, but the subjective experience of it does. That comes back to fear. You and I could experience the exact same event but view it differently. And that’s what’s more important [in terms of] needing services down the line.
Are law enforcement agencies, in general, equipped to meet all the needs of a crime victim?
When a police officer responds to a crime, they file a report. The way I’ve seen it happen most often is that, the next day, ‘victim advocates’ review reports from the previous day. They have access to the same computer systems and reports that have been filed by the officers. And then those advocates reach out to the individual to offer support.
Victim advocates have specialized training in how to provide acute support to a victim. And they do it in a couple of ways: One is through that validation and emotional support that folks need…just someone to listen. The other areas of need often are [related to] personal safety. Let’s say your apartment got broken into. Someone just busted the door open—lock, hinge and all. Victim advocates have access to funds to help replace it, if it’s something that might ensure safety in the future.
What counseling treatments are available for crime victims?
When we talk about longer-term mental health concerns, there are three that are big: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, major depression and substance use.
For individuals who develop PTSD, we have evidence-based treatments that have been researched for several decades. One is called ‘prolonged exposure therapy,’ and another is ‘cognitive processing therapy’… They all have one common element: When you’re meeting with a counselor, that counselor is going to help you think about and talk about the event that you experienced. That’s the ‘exposure.’
But if I’ve been robbed at gunpoint, how does a therapist get one to re-experience that?
It can be anxiety-provoking…but again, going back to this resilience concept, we find that we can do it in a safe, therapeutic environment.
So let’s break this down for someone who’s been in an armed robbery: Let’s say the robbery happened in the evening. Maybe in that first session with a therapist, you just close your eyes and talk about the breakfast you had that day. And then maybe in the next session, you move up to mid-day and what that was like for you. And then by the third or fourth session, you’re getting closer to the actual event. By then, people are able to mentally imagine this event and talk about the impact it had on them.
And the people who aren’t going to seek professional help, but are still struggling, what can they do?
One of the most helpful ways to work through and overcome a traumatic event is by taking advantage of our social network—family, friends, coworkers, the people we have relationships with. Just spending time with people is remarkably therapeutic, even if you’re not necessarily talking about what happened to you. You really want to make sure that you’re [not] isolating from the people around you.
It’s also important to stay active. So that’s exercise, maybe that’s just taking your dog for a walk. It’s forcing yourself to get back out there and live your life.