How do our bodies react and recover from horrific experiences like the one in Cleveland?
By Nancy Maes
The names of recently released kidnap victims Amanda Berry, who is now 27, Georgina DeJesus, 23, and Michele Knight, 32, are imprinted on our brains. But how do we begin to understand the psychological impact that nearly a decade of captivity and sexual abuse has had on the minds of the three young women.
“It’s hard to speak to their specific experience, but usually when [going] through such a [trauma like that] there are a lot of effects on the way [that these persons view] themselves and others,” says Mariam Mourad, a clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and posttraumatic stress disorder at NorthShore University HealthSystem. “Sometimes [they] will view themselves as having done something wrong or feel guilty and blame themselves for what happened; other times they will devalue themselves.”
She points out that people in this type of situation develop a distrust of others and a view of the world as an unsafe place. Or they could have developed Stockholm syndrome, wherein a captive person begins to identify and sympathize with his or her captor. The term comes from a bank robbery that took place in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1973, [when] six people were kept at gunpoint for six days in the bank’s vault and became attached to the perpetrators during the ordeal, even defending them after being released.
The kidnap victims in Cleveland might also have developed what Mourad calls “learned helplessness” because there was no way for them to escape. And because of the great length of time the women were imprisoned, feelings of hopelessness may have also emerged.
Mourad says that it is important that the victims be sheltered from the media, away from the prying eyes and prodding questions of journalists. “The case has been so highly publicized, and everyone is aware that there was sexual abuse… so the victims need time to adjust and [be allowed to] do so in private.”
She says that it is definitely possible for the young women to recover from their trauma because there are a variety of excellent treatment options. Those options, however, depend on their symptoms, that may include depression, anxiety disorders and phobias. One treatment could be cognitive behavioral therapy. Another is prolonged exposure therapy if the young women are suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder, which includes symptoms such as nightmares and recurring memories or flashbacks of their experience. During the intensive treatment, victims are asked to systematically remember a specific painful event over and over again until they become desensitized to the memory to some degree.
Because the young women were isolated for the better part of a decade, they are going to have to work with their families to adjust to the new dynamics. For example, during her captivity, Berry gave birth to a daughter, who is now 6 years old.
The widespread media coverage of the details of the ordeal of these three young women raises problems for parents whose children have read headlines about it or heard about it from friends. “For most parents, this is their worst nightmare, and trying to explain it to their children is very difficult,” says Mourad. “They have to be sensitive to their child’s developmental stage, but they have to let the child know that the world can be unsafe, [while trying] to bolster the idea of how to maintain some level of safety in a world where things are unsure.”