PKpix/Shutterstock
Source: PKpix/Shutterstock

When Jess started receiving anonymous threats over email and via Facebook, she didn’t know where to turn. As a strong and independent woman climbing the professional ladder, she kept it to herself, fearing that talking about what was happening might make her appear weak.

“I felt like it was a burden and I was being dramatic. I’d just delete [the messages]. I didn’t let anyone know it was happening.”

But ignoring the situation did not improve it.

Jess began to receive photos of herself — at the grocery story, walking home from work. She moved to a safer building, one with gated entry and security guards. She would call friends or family when arriving home late at night during the walk from her car to her apartment, just to be safe. When they asked about her heavy breathing, she told them she was returning from a jog, when, in actuality, she was struggling to ward off a panic attack.

Still she told no one about the threats that were becoming increasingly specific and severe. Jess feared that she wouldn’t be taken seriously, that her fears would be dismissed. After all, everything was taking place in the virtual world.

Until it wasn’t.

For Jess, the online harassment culminated in a brutal physical attack that left her hospitalized. Even though the threats had been getting worse, Jess could not have predicted the extent of the danger. No one else around her was experiencing online harassment, so she was left feeling isolated and ashamed.

She’s not alone. According to Elizabeth Lee and Samantha Silverberg, founders of the Online SOS Network, our social safety net is having a hard time keeping up with abuses that occur via technology, especially when it comes to understanding and responding to the mental health impacts of online harassment.

“People don’t realize how big of an issue it is from a mental health perspective. It’s really hard to quantify what’s happening,” Silverberg told me. “There’s not a lot of information on the emotional impact.”

Elizabeth Lee, a businesswoman, and Silverberg, a licensed mental health professional, founded Online SOS after their own traumatic experiences with online harassment. Like Jess, did not know where to turn for help.

According to Silverberg, online harassment is a very specific type of engagement which involves two factors:

1. The intent to cause harm on the part of the perpetrator.

2. A high subjective level of distress on the part of the victim.

This type of harassment is particularly insidious, because, unlike in the physical world, it can be difficult for the victim to ascertain the true nature of the threat, given that the messages are virtual and, often, anonymous. The lack of a clearly identifiable source of danger, where you cannot point your finger and say, “There it is,” leads to an increase in symptoms of anxiety and (appropriate) paranoia.

“People are experiencing even more distress than may be felt by people with a known victim. This is because those experiencing online harassment don’t know if the threat will come to pass. There’s an anonymous piece of, 'Will this happen or won’t this happen?” explains Silverberg.

Through Online SOS, Silverberg and Lee hear from many victims who display severe symptoms of trauma. Even though these victims may not have been assaulted in the physical world, they experience:

  • Decreased ability to concentrate.
  • Difficulty making day-to-day decisions.
  • Increased levels of anxiety.
  • Panic attacks when reminded of the threatening events.
  • Emotional and physical distress associated with reminders of the attack, such as opening up emails or looking at the computer.

While there is much coverage of high-profile cases of harassment, little attention has been paid to the ongoing mental health impact. Because of that, victims often suffer in silence while symptoms of trauma increase, leading to debilitating distress in their personal and professional lives.

Lee and Silverberg encourage individuals to seek help immediately. If you or someone you know is currently experiencing online harassment, here are some things you can do right now to get help:

Take it seriously. Victims often experience a sense of shame or worry that they are weak if they reach out and ask for help. Silverberg encourages you to do so anyway, citing that, too often, victims of abuse are left to fend for themselves.

Identify your support system. It can be scary to open up and share what you’re going through, especially if it feels like you won’t be taken seriously. This is why it’s very important to identify people in your life who have the capacity to listen and offer emotional support. If you’re unsure who to talk to, go to onlinesosnetwork.org.

Document everything. It is crucial to document everything as it happens. Because keeping a record may feel difficult if you’re experiencing symptoms of trauma, Silverberg suggests asking a friend to help you.

The most important thing is to recognize that you’re not alone. Help is available. According to research, one of the greatest mitigating factors to trauma is the acknowledgment that it is happening. Lee and Silverberg are on a mission to draw attention to this issue, so that victims of online harassment can find support and guidance about what steps can be taken to protect themselves and how to cope with the aftermath.

Katarzyna Białasiewicz/123rf
Source: Katarzyna Białasiewicz/123rf

“We feel really strongly about this issue,” Lee says. “If people are in need of help, even if it’s just a question, reach out.”

"The big takeaway,” Silverberg adds, "is that you are important, and should be heard and felt heard. If anyone is struggling with issues like this, it is okay to get help and feel empowered to get help. You’re not weak. There are a lot of people who experience this daily.”

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