Non-violent stalking can cause lasting psychological damage to victims and should be treated as seriously as domestic abuse by the justice system, new research suggests.
A survey of 128 stalking victims found the actions of the stalker had an impact on all aspects of their lives, from their mental and physical health to employment and social life.
Victims reported suicide attempts, anxiety, depression, a loss of confidence and feelings of isolation, while some changed jobs and moved house after being targeted.
The Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU) research found almost nine in 10 victims (87%) were stalked by someone who was known to them while around a third (34%) were targeted by a partner or an ex-partner.
Stalking behaviours included spying, remote surveillance, making unwanted phone calls, sending unwanted notes or letters, texts, emails and social media messages, harassment and threats of violence.
Katy Proctor, lecturer in criminology and policing at GCU, who carried out the study, believes designated task forces and specialist courts should be set up to handle stalking in all its forms.
She said: “There’s a danger that by focusing solely on the physical risk posed by violent stalkers, it allows those who cause emotional damage to continue their behaviour.
“If we are to support and protect victims of stalking effectively, the justice system needs to recognise the potential of non-violent offenders to cause significant and long-lasting harm.”
She added: “The majority of behaviours, on an individual basis, are not criminal and might not seem threatening by others.
“The criminal justice system operates on an incident by incident basis, so it doesn’t easily recognise or pick up on a course of conduct.
“It is the course of conduct that creates fear and alarm, and that needs to be recognised by the criminal justice system.”
The survey found 24% of those questioned were stalked by an acquaintance and 11% by a work colleague.
Just over three-quarters of those who took part (76%), were women who were stalked by men.
Less than half (49%) of those surveyed reported their concerns to Police Scotland.
Asked how being victimised made them feel, 83% said they felt they may have done something to trigger the behaviour and 77% said they felt shame.
Ms Proctor stressed victims are in no way responsible and said for stalkers who are not deluded about their victim’s feelings for them it is about power and control, similar to domestic abuse.
Experts are calling for specialist training to be rolled out throughout the criminal justice system to recognise that stalking can take place across all relationship types.
We are committed to doing all we can to ensure victims are protectedScottish Government
The research has been released ahead of National Stalking Awareness Week which runs from Monday April 8 to Friday April 12 and will this year focus on the impact stalking has on victims’ mental and emotional health.
A social media campaign, entitled #StalkingStealsLives, will aim to raise awareness among health professionals about the seriousness of stalking.
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “While there is no simple solution to dealing with gender based violence, which includes stalking and harassment, we are committed to doing all we can to ensure victims are protected and can access the support they need.
“We continue to work with Police Scotland, justice partners, the Scottish Women’s Rights Centre and key stakeholders to explore further measures to increase personal protection for victims.
“There are a number of organisations involved in supporting stalking victims and survivors in Scotland, and we encourage everyone in need of help to get in touch.
“The Domestic Abuse Act strengthens the laws against those who use psychological or non-physical abuse against their partners or ex-partners.”