Social media ‘emboldens’ stalkers to take action, warns expert

Social media is acting as a “catalyst” for stalkers to act on delusional beliefs, England’s most senior clinician working with perpetrators has warned.

Frank Farnham, the clinical lead at the National Stalking Clinic and a consultant forensic psychiatrist, said there was increasing evidence that stalkers were “emboldened and galvanised” by the realisation that others share conspiracy theories or deep-seated resentment towards high-profile figures.

“We see social media as being very important for lots of reasons,” he said. “If you’re on your own and have this [delusional] belief, you might feel uncertain about it, but then you go on the internet and discover loads of other people with the same view. It acts as a catalyst.”

Referrals to the clinic, which works with health, probation and prison services, have risen significantly in the past 18 months, Farnham said, after increased social isolation and rising unemployment brought about by the pandemic.

“There is the perfect storm of … changes in the economy that makes things harder and harder, the stress of Covid and social isolation and the ability to go on to social media and discover like-minded people,” he said. “It’s a recipe for action.

“We are seeing more and more people who look like they’re at risk of … posing threats,” he added. “They’ll say things like: ‘We’re a movement, it’s not just me, others will follow.’ That kind of language will come out when they’re writing a letter to, say, an MP.”

The warning comes at a time of heightened concern in the UK about risks to public figures after the killing of the Conservative MP Sir David Amess.

This week, it was reported that between April 2020 and April 2021, the Metropolitan police recorded 52 offences of letters or messages being sent to addresses in parliament with the “intent to cause distress or anxiety” – and many more instances of harassment and stalking go unreported.

However, Farnham said that chronic underfunding and the fact that mental health services were not set up to deal with those suffering from delusional disorders could be adding to the risk of dangerous individuals slipping through the net.

Experts divide stalkers into subsets, not all of whose behaviour is underpinned by mental illness. Former partners, who represent around half of cases, are typically vengeful individuals without underlying psychiatric conditions. Authority figures such as MPs or doctors are at particular risk from “resentful” stalkers who come to the misguided belief that their victim is responsible for things that have gone wrong in their life.

This group can be treated with a combination of antipsychotic drugs, psychological therapies and occupational therapy – for many, stalking and harassment has “become a full-time job”, which needs to be replaced. “Often we’re dealing with people here who have longstanding, ingrained delusions,” he said.

Successful outcomes, which are not guaranteed, typically require months of treatment, which is expensive. And a public health model of treatment means that the overall risk from stalkers is partly managed by reaching people before they pose a credible threat. “It’s like blood pressure and stroke,” said Farnham. “We’re not trying to predict who is going to be dangerous. There might be 100 people who make a threat and one who tries to carry it out. We need to treat everyone.”

Reaching this group of people, many of whom do not recognise that they need treatment, was already challenging, but has become even more difficult in the past year.

“As a clinician on the ground, Covid has placed a massive burden on mental health services. We don’t have the money to deal with some of the people who are ‘stably deluded’,” said Farnham. “If we improve mental health services across the board we’re likely to improve this almost by accident.”

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