Classifying Stalkers Aids Counseling of Victims

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MIAMI BEACH -- Risk assessment and management of stalking should begin with classifying the offender into one of five general types based on behavior, according to two presentations at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law.

Rejected, intimacy seeking, incompetent, resentful, and predatory stalkers are the types outlined by Dr. Paul E. Mullen and associates (Am. J. Psychiatry 1999;156:1244-9). Dr. Debra A. Pinals and Dr. Phillip J. Resnick recommended use of this system, although it is not the only categorization that has been proposed.

"Classification helps communication between professionals and helps to identify patterns related to risk and management strategies," said Dr. Pinals, codirector of the law and psychiatry program at the University of Massachusetts, Worcester.

Most stalkers fit into one of these categories, which aids counseling of the victim, management of the offender, and education of law enforcement officials, but "there are some unique populations that may not fit into these schemes, such as adolescent stalkers or cyberstalkers," she said.

The assessment of how likely stalkers are to be violent should be separate from the assessment of how likely they are to continue stalking, Dr. Resnick said.

Proceed cautiously because of the intervention dilemma. "Interventions to stop stalking may increase the risk of violent harm to the stalking victim. One needs to take a very careful look and not rush in with singular advice. Sometimes doing nothing is best," said Dr. Resnick, professor of psychiatry at Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland.

Many researchers recognize the importance of the type of relationship between stalker and victim. For example, "stalking an ex-intimate has the highest risk factor for physical harm and property damage," Dr. Resnick said. "We tend to think of mentally ill strangers as very dangerous, thanks to movies, but an exboyfriend is more likely to be dangerous."

Dr. Mullen's classification comes from a study of 145 stalkers referred for treatment to a forensic psychiatry center. Most of the stalkers were socially incompetent and lonely--75 had never had an intimate relationship. Most (114) were men, and 56 were unemployed. "Being unemployed is a risk factor. To do a good job, stalking is a full-time job," Dr. Resnick said.

A total of 43 stalkers in the study had delusional disorders. The stalking lasted a mean of 12 months (range, 4 weeks to 20 years). Among the victims, 44 were expartners, 34 were professional contacts, 16 were work contacts, and 20 were strangers.

There are some important distinctions among stalker types:

* Intimacy-seeking stalkers respond to loneliness. …