Fatal obsession: Why people turn into stalkers and how to recognise the signs
A 21-year-old woman was stabbed to death in broad daylight by a man, who had been stalking her for months, at North Delhi’s Burari area.
CCTV footage captured the brutal attack, as the assailant Surender Singh stabbed schoolteacher Karuna over 20 times. Singh had been stalking and harassing Karuna for over a year, after she turned down his advances.
While Karuna’s family had approached the police on an earlier occasion to seek intervention against the stalker, they had not filed a complaint.
The incident has added to the list of stalking-related deaths this year. In June 27, 21-year-old A Vinupriya, killed herself in Salem, Tamil Nadu, after morphed pictures of her appeared on Facebook. P Suresh, 21, confessed to stalking her online after she refused to marry him. On June 24, Infosys employee S Swati, 24, was hacked to death by her stalker at a Chennai railway station while she was on her way to work.
Stalking, even if does not cause physical injury, can leave deep psychological scars ranging from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to paranoia, withdrawal and sleeplessness.
“The casualties show how serious the problem really is and what can happen when obsession overrules reason,” says psychiatrist Dr Yusuf Matcheswalla of Mumbai’s Masina Hospital, who treats stalkers and counsels those who have been stalked.
Though the word stalking is increasingly used to describe social voyeurism akin to gossiping — looking up someone online before an appointment, tracking partners and frenemies on Facebook or Twitter — it has a far darker and more threatening reality. Several cases are not reported because the victims either don’t take the threat seriously or are too embarrassed to mention it to friends and family, leave alone the police.
Stalker-led abductions and deaths are rare, but stalking — defined as wilful, malicious and repeated unwanted attention, harassing, violating or threatening the victim — can end in other forms of violence, such as vicious personal attacks on social media, wrecking of property and, in some cases, molestation and assault.
What makes a person so fixated with someone that he/she cannot stop themselves from intrusively texting, calling or following their victim? Is the obsessive behaviour fuelled by delusion or does narcissism, lack of empathy and an overriding sense of entitlement also play a role?
“All stalkers are psychologically unstable, either delusional that the person is in love with them or with an undiagnosed psychosis that makes them fixated on somebody,” says Dr Samir Parikh, director of mental health and behavioural sciences at Fortis, Gurgaon.
Most stalkers are sociopaths who aren’t discomforted or embarrassed if caught or humiliated publicly and never seek treatment.
Much like sex offenders, stalkers can rationalise their behaviour and are indifferent to victims’ sufferings. “People may ask, why did the young man who’s ex called him 351 times simply not change his number? He didn’t because he knew she wouldn’t stop and would find a way to get to him,” says Dr Parikh.
Victims of stalking almost always need therapy. “As many as 80% are at risk of PTSD, which causes symptoms like extreme anxiety, sleeplessness, palpitation, flashbacks etc,” says Dr Parikh.
He recently treated a 22-year-old brought in after she quit her job and turned recluse. Weeks earlier, a stranger had walked up to her to say he had been following her for months and had quit his job for her. “The thought of someone shadowing her without her knowledge made her feel insecure, threatened. She needed weeks of counselling to reclaim her life,” says Dr Parikh.
Fear, trauma, paranoia, thoughts of being killed or killing oneself, doubting one’s own character and wondering ‘Did I provoke it’, are some overbearing thoughts that victims come to us with, adds Dr Matcheswalla.
When men are at the receiving end, it can be even more complicated. Last June, Dr Parul Tank, consultant psychiatrist and therapist at Mumbai’s Fortis Hospital, counselled Arijit*, a 25-year-old stalked by a woman 10 years older.
“She would show up outside his home and his office building, send him angry or lewd texts on WhatsApp. He didn’t know how to deal with it and feared how people might react if he said he was being stalked,” says Dr Tank. It was when she threatened suicide that Arijit called her father. “They brought her to me, and by then, Arijit too needed counselling,” says Dr Tank.
RAISING THE ALARM
Stalkers are usually people you know — an ex, someone you went to school with, a Facebook friend, a colleague, a neighbour — and it usually begins innocuously.
Trust your instincts and do not downplay a perceived threat, because it usually begins with seemingly harmless gestures.
“If you got 200 messages in one day you’d immediately file a police complaint, but stalking usually doesn’t start out like that,” says Dr Tank. “It starts with small acts that cause a vague sensation of discomfort. So it’s important to stay alert and communicate with friends and family the minute you feel uncomfortable.”
(* Name changed to protect identity)
This is an updated version of an older story.