Cleveland Kidnap Victims Can Recover From Their Unspeakable Trauma, Dr. Sack Tells ‘Marvelous Girl’

Cleveland kidnap victims Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight have escaped their captor, but their ordeal is far from over. Can the three women who were  raped, starved, beaten and kept in chains by their alleged tormentor Ariel Castro ever live a normal life?

Psychiatrist Dr. David Sack, CEO of Promises Treatment Center, says yes, that abuse victims do recover and go on to lead healthy lives, particularly if they have support and treatment.

Recovery is a process that takes time, patience and often long-term therapy, Dr. Sack said in an interview with “Marvelous Girl” in an article titled “Psychological Effects of Abduction.” Dr. Sack said that the young women are at risk for developing post-traumatic stress disorder and are vulnerable to substance abuse and other high-risk behaviors.  Each victim’s recovery will depend on her individual coping skills and resilience, Dr. Sack said.

With proper care, “it is remarkable how much recovery can occur following this kind of abuse,” Dr. Sack said.

Here is Dr. Sack’s conversation with Marvelous Girl:

MG: How does abduction psychologically affect victims?

Dr. Sack: People react differently to trauma. Some rebound quickly while others struggle with effects that linger over time. In general, more severe trauma, such as physical or sexual abuse, has more long-lasting psychological effects than other forms of trauma.

In the weeks and months following a traumatic event, some people develop post-traumatic stress disorder. They may have difficulty sleeping because of nightmares, anxiety and frightening thoughts. They may isolate themselves in an effort to avoid reminders of the traumatic event. People who experience trauma are also at heightened risk of substance abuse and other high-risk behaviors.

Another potential issue following an abduction is Stockholm syndrome, where the prisoner comes to identify with their captors. This identification makes the person feel like they have made a choice or that their prisoner status is deserved. As a result, the psychological stress of being in captivity is reduced.

In situations like this, where there are multiple hostages or prisoners, it is not unusual for one captive to be treated far worse or to have a psychological response that is more severe than the other prisoners. The person whose treatment is less severe or who copes with it better often feels guilty that they did not/could not do more to help the more severely affected victim.

MG: Why is this particular crime so damaging?

Dr. Sack: Rape is the type of trauma most often associated with PTSD. In the case of the Ohio kidnappings, a number of other factors make the situation especially damaging. The victims were held hostage for a significant portion of their young lives and reportedly suffered recurring mental, physical and sexual abuse. Because all three girls were kidnapped at a young age, they were robbed of the opportunity for normal adolescent/young adult development. They spent their formative years away from critical influences – their parents, friends and school–with virtually no exposure to the outside world. After 10 years of confinement and abuse, the world is a very different – and probably very frightening – place.

MG: Do abduction victims ever fully recover?

Dr. Sack: Although traumatic events will always be part of their lives, victims do recover and go on to lead healthy lives, particularly if they have the support of their families and communities. Studies show that with regular therapy, about 80 percent of victims show improvements within a few months of a traumatic event. Others have ongoing emotional disturbances and compromised relationships. The difference depends on each individual’s coping skills and resilience. The process takes time but with support and treatment, it is remarkable how much recovery can occur following this kind of abuse.

MG: How can a victim begin to heal from such a traumatic event?

Dr. Sack: Recovery is a process that takes time, patience and often long-term therapy. There are a number of therapies that are effective in trauma recovery, including trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing and Somatic Experiencing. Most importantly, trauma survivors need a strong support network to help rebuild their sense of security.

MG: What role do loved ones play in the recovery process?

Dr. Sack: Loved ones are central to the recovery process. Family members are in the best position to recognize the signs of PTSD and other issues and to intervene should the need arise. Something as simple as spending quality time together as a family or keeping a consistent daily routine helps create a sense of normalcy and predictability and re-establishes bonds between trauma survivors and the people who love them. By acknowledging and accepting their feelings, from the expected to the extreme, and allowing them to set the pace for the healing process, families provide the type of day-to-day support that trauma survivors need to feel safe.

MG: What impact does media attention have on the victim’s recovery, in high-profile cases such as the Cleveland incident? 

Dr. Sack: The kidnapping victims need to be left alone and given time to heal. It may also be beneficial to limit their exposure to media reports, which can re-traumatize victims in these circumstances and make it difficult for the young women to process their experiences in their own way, in their own time.

MG: In the case of Amanda Berry, who gave birth to her captor’s child, what does the road to recovery look like for her and her daughter?

Dr. Sack: The recovery for Berry and her daughter will likely be more complicated. Rape victims sometimes have ambivalent feelings toward their child, who is a living reminder of the trauma they endured. Incredibly, for the majority of victims, even rape cannot destroy the bond between mother and child.

In addition to processing her own anger and grief, Berry has the task of learning how to be a mother. Her daughter, who has grown up in an abusive environment, was returned “home” to a home and family she’s never seen or known. Depending on her experiences in captivity, she may have emotional and psychological issues such as depression, attachment disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder.

MG: Abduction crimes are difficult on relatives and friends as well. What advice do you have for families of rescued abduction victims?

Dr. Sack: In abduction situations, family members experience a tremendous loss of their own that needs to be recognized and treated. At a time when they may feel depressed, anxious or burnt out from supporting someone recovering from trauma, they need to also tend to their own physical and emotional needs.

MG: What advice do you have for those who currently have missing loved ones? 

Dr. Sack: Kidnappings can be extremely traumatic for both the victims and their families. While there is no right or wrong way to feel, hope is vital for survival. With courage, determination and support, there can be healing for the whole family.

There is still hope.

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