Adjusting to Criminal Victimization: The Correlates of Postcrime Distress

Article excerpt

This article explores the correlates of immediate and short-term psychological distress among victims of burglary, robbery, and nonsexual assault. A panel design was employed. Crime victims were interviewed within 1 month following the incident and again 3 months later. Four sets of predictors were examined: demographics, previctimization adjustment and stress, features of the crime incident, and victims' perceptions. Measures of distress included a range of standard indices of adjustment and symptomatology. Demographic characteristics and victim perceptions accounted for the greatest proportions of variance in the outcome measures at Time 1 and Time 2. The strongest predictors of psychological adjustment at the end of 3 months included adjustment after 1 month, education, victim injury, victims' beliefs that their lives had been endangered during the crime episode, and victims' appraisals of the world as meaningful. Implications for treatment and directions for future studies are discussed.

Crime has been a prominent feature of the American landscape for most of the 20th century. Criminal victimization and fear of crime are inescapable aspects of everyday urban life in the United States. According to the FBI Crime Clock, in 1992, one violent crime was reported every 22 seconds (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 1993). Moreover, estimates suggest that five of every six young persons living in the United States in the early 1990s will become a victim of violent crime (either completed or attempted) at least once during their lifetimes (Laub, 1990).

Criminal victimization may have profound psychological repercussions (Burgess & Holmstrom, 1979; Fisher & Wertz, 1979; Frederick, 1980; Kahn, 1984; Koss, 1993). The emotional concomitants of crime often can be more devastating than property loss or personal injury (Bard & Sangrey, 1979; Symonds, 1976). Although the economic and medical consequences of crime are well established, relatively less is known about the psychological impact of serious, nonsexual offenses. A number of basic questions require further study. Are there any shared, early reactions to crime? To what extent do crime victims adjust to the event? What is the immediate course of postcrime effects? What factors are related to adjustment at different points in the early recovery process? How important to subsequent early recovery are victims' perceptions and interpretations of criminal events? Answers to these questions have crucial implications for understanding the psychological trauma of criminal victimization and for designing victim interventions to relieve distress and symptomatology.

The present study extends prior work by examining the correlates of both the short-term and intermediate-term psychological impact of crime. The primary purpose of the investigation was to identify the personal and situational determinants of postcrime disturbances. This research was driven by three considerations. First, compared to rape, less is known about the psychological effects of other serious crimes (Lurigio, 1987; Lurigio & Resick, 1990). Second, previous research reports inconsistent findings concerning the predictors of adjustment and only a few studies have differentiated between short-term and subsequent correlates of recovery (Norris & Kaniasty, 1993; Resick, 1990). Third, although some investigators have suggested that recovery from catastrophic events is mediated by victims' perceptions, empirical evidence linking perceptions to adjustment in samples of crime victims is scanty (e.g., Burt & Katz, 1987; Janoff-Bulman, 1989; Norris & Kaniasty, 1991).


The experience of criminal victimization can have serious psychological effects (Frieze, Hymer, & Greenberg, 1987). The emotional corollaries of crime can be more overwhelming and persistent than its medical (e.g., physical injury) or economic (e.g., property loss) consequences. …