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Legal, criminological and forensic

‘Working with people who stalk is about carefully coming alongside someone who has a very fixed view’

Ella Rhodes spoke to the three lead authors of British Psychological Society guidance on working with individuals who have engaged in stalking.

14 December 2022

With poor recognition, high reoffending rates, and a lack of clear treatments, working with those who engage in stalking is a challenge for psychologists. The British Psychological Society's Division of Forensic Psychology and Division of Clinical Psychology will be publishing guidance for practitioner psychologists who work with those who stalk; it outlines theories of stalking, stalking typologies, assessment and formulation, risk management and practitioner safety. We asked the authors about their work with those who stalk, and the research gaps in the area.

It is estimated that 2.5 million people in England and Wales experience stalking each year, with some studies finding that reoffending occurs in around 50 per cent of cases. Forensic Psychiatrist Paul Mullen developed a typology system for classifying the motivation of people who stalk. This includes those who stalk after a relationship breakdown; those who may be lonely and stalk strangers or acquaintances out of a desire for a relationship, sometimes believing a bond exists between themselves and their victim when it does not; or those who believe that they have been the subject of an injustice and hold a grievance. One of the lead authors of the guidance, Dr Rachael Wheatley, Forensic Psychologist and Professional Psychological Practice Programmes Manager (University of Derby), began specialising in the area around 12 years ago after working with men who had committed intimate partner violence offences. 'What became really evident, when you looked at the case details, was that not all the men had been in an intimate relationship with the person at the time they had committed offences against, if at all… that was quite striking.'

'Then there was a referral that came through to work with somebody with very clear stalking behaviours, and I was asked to do a risk assessment. I was offered the opportunity to do stalking risk profile training and that was when I learned a lot more about the different stalking typologies and found it all really mind blowing. I hadn't thought about stalking in that way before. I didn't realise there were different typologies, or that we didn't know much about stalking.'

A great deal to learn

There is a great deal still to learn about stalking – the guidance points out several areas in need of attention including treatment effectiveness, the persistence of stalking, desistance opportunities, and addressing the fixation and obsession seen in many offenders. Another of the document's lead authors, Sara Henley, Consultant Clinical and Forensic Psychologist and Joint Clinical Lead of the Stalking Threat Assessment Centre and the National Stalking Clinic, said we still need to uncover what helps those who stalk to stop.

'We would like to know, for example, what happens with individuals who end up in custody. They go into custody, they are fixated, they have a very concrete and narrow-minded way of thinking about things, and they're left in a cell for several months, and guess what they're thinking about? Not only has that not made things better, but there's also every possibility that it's made things worse. If there could be a development or an intervention that could be offered to those individuals in custody, I think that would be a really positive step.'

Wheatley pointed out that there is a need for different interventions depending on the motivational typology of individuals to stalk. 'There'll be people who stalk because they are seeking a relationship, they could have underlying mental health problems that might require a certain intervention. There are people that have lost a relationship and can't bear the grief and the inevitability of what that means for them. There are others who fairly innocently just want a relationship, a friendship or sexual contact, but they're going about it in the wrong way because of intellectual, social or personality difficulties; they're not connecting socially in ways that are acceptable and end up stalking to attain their goals. I'd really like to see focus on early interventions and also wider societal education – what impact would it have if we got society to a point where our young adults, adolescents and children could recognise the different ways stalking can look.'

Dr Alan Underwood, a Clinical Psychologist from the Stalking Threat Assessment Centre and National Stalking Clinic, was also a lead author of the guidance. He said stalking was a relatively new research area with multiple outstanding questions. 'The initial focus has been on describing the population, but we've got very little about what interventions work. From a clinical practitioner perspective I would like to understand the clinical phenomena we see and how we start to build effective interventions, what are the areas we might need to target and address, for example in areas like rumination.'

Underwood told me there was a need to explore stalking outside of adults in heterosexual relationships. 'We need to expand our work with younger people and adolescents. From the limited research in that area stalking seems to present slightly differently in adolescents. That could be a generational thing, but the behaviours and experiences also seem to be different. A lot of the research is also based on heteronormative ideas – usually a female victim and a male perpetrator – but what if it's a same sex couple? Are there different risks for those groups? Not assuming sameness across all groups is going to be important.'

Unique challenges

The authors pointed out some of the unique challenges of working with people who stalk, Wheatley said a lack of recognition of stalking is a huge barrier. 'It might be totally clear that they've been charged with stalking but they won't call themselves a stalker. It's this label that is a real block given the associated stereotypes. When you do spend time with people and break it down, often their goals are normal human desires and wants, but the way they're going about it is not workable. The hard bit is getting them to see their strategies are harmful, fruitless in achieving their goals (related to re-establishing or attaining relationships), and illegal.

'There's also a challenge in not having anywhere to signpost people to for help, you might do the risk assessment but where do they go for help? We don't have many effectiveness studies yet, and we don't really know what helps to stop people from stalking or if they've stopped to never stalk again.'

Wheatley said there were also many challenges for the victims of stalking. 'We tell victims all the time to contact the police if they feel they are being stalked, but conviction rates for stalking are around 1 per cent (or even less). Recognition of what stalking is across society and criminal justice agencies is very, very important. I know there's lots happening at the moment in terms of police training, but there's so much more that that we need to do. It needs to involve all of us, including people in academia working with agencies to help to improve these things.'

Underwood echoed the importance of recognition, saying that individuals will often not see their behaviour as stalking. 'Often the people we work with have been referred by the court or the Probation Service under a legal order and they don't necessarily subscribe to idea that they have been stalking. That's a big challenge and might be partly to do with some of the scripts in society around stalking – people don't identify with those kinds of stereotypes and myths around stalking which we see in the media. There seems to be something about the label itself which people are very reticent to identify themselves with and there can be challenges with engaging people.'

Henley said narcissism was something she had experienced in this group. 'There's a real self-referential, self-preoccupation. It's all about me, it's about how I'm feeling, what I'm doing, how I've been treated. One chap I saw was married for 20 years and his wife left him, and he pursued her and in the end he was making threats to kill her and was arrested and was in custody. He was so enraged by the wrongs that she had done and the pain that he felt – how dare she leave him? How dare she do this? It was all about how he felt about it. It was so difficult to get past that – he felt so aggrieved by what had happened. He said, "everybody's talking about the wrong I've done, but nobody's talking about the wrong she's done". I got a piece of paper and drew the difference between something feeling unfair and something being illegal, but to him they were the same… what she had done had broken some kind of law that was only in his head.'

The bigger picture

Henley added that it can be difficult to help those who stalk to see the bigger picture. 'Working with people who stalk is about carefully coming alongside someone who has a very fixed view of things, isn't really interested in the fact you might have a different opinion, is really preoccupied by what their experiences are; you have to use your skills in working with people who have that fragile, narcissistic presentation.

'There are some people who can't get past that at all, whatever your viewpoint is, however carefully crafted, is unacceptable – they can't tolerate it. That can make intervention very hard, but if you could see people earlier in the process perhaps you might be able to see that. By the time we see people sometimes they have invested in this stalking behaviour for years, and sometimes it's a big thing to say "oh I'll just stop" – you've invested so much in being right that it's hard to turn around. These are some of the challenges and we really need to think creatively about how to offer people something that is meaningful to them.' 

The guidance includes several recommendations, including a need for practitioners to be aware of ongoing risks given the prevalence and persistence of stalking, the importance of using stalking-specific risk assessments, and ensuring victims of stalking are central to any risk management plans. The authors of the guidance are hosting a workshop on some of the key messages for practitioner psychologists on 18 January 2023: register here.

The full guidance will be launched on Thursday 19 January and will be available to read on