While ushering in an era of working and studying from home, the Covid-19 pandemic has also heralded new channels for online criminals who have taken advantage of weak cyber security practices and low awareness around digital safety to cause monetary and psychological distress to their victims. They prey on the fact that their victims are more distracted and over stressed at the time, especially as they are working from home and thus resort to tactics like placing a high degree of urgency and risks to further target the vulnerabilities of their victims.
While Cybercrime is nothing new, data suggests that during the pandemic rates of cyberthreats and frauds have risen 30,000% globally! Even though most cybercrimes are driven by monetary motivations, the emotional and psychological trauma they cause by hurting an individual’s Mental Health is something which is rarely spoken of. There have been reports suggesting that individuals who have been victims to cyber crimes have reported feeling traumatised, exposed, vulnerable or scared that it can happen to them again. Additionally, they also face feelings of guilt and shame as they either are or fear being blamed by others around them for falling victim to the attack or scam. In this piece we will look at some of the Mental Health implications of being a victim of cyber crime & provide some suggestions on how to cope should you find yourself as a victim of such an event or as someone supporting someone who has.
When it comes to cybercrimes, they can take many forms ranging from romance scams, identity thefts, catfishing, phishing attacks, ransomware attacks and more. There are several emotional and psychological implications owing to falling victim to a cybercrime. It is also crucial to keep in mind that these implications may not just be around the stolen data or monetary loss but also in the fear of how this data might be used or the threats the victim might start receiving owing to this. The emotional fallout includes feeling sad, guilty, ashamed, demoralized, and angry, and in extreme cases also leading to a diagnosis of depression, suicidal ideation, PTSD and/or anxiety as well. It can also include feeling betrayed, helpless, powerless, disempowered, let down, out of control and vulnerable. Individuals may also have a negative perception of themselves as they may look at themselves as failure, battle poor self-esteem and self-confidence, feel unsafe, fear for their safety and have a hard time staying positive and focused. Owing to victim-blaming and the shame which comes with being a victim of cybercrime, the victims may engage in isolating behaviors and withdrawal. The invasion to one’s privacy that results from cyber-attacks also translates into grief owing to the loss of a sense of self and to one’s role and identity along with the feeling of distrust in oneself and distrust of others. All of these can also have physical health and behavioral implications such as sleep disturbances, aches and pains, increase in substance misuse and/or appetite changes.
Now that we have explored some of the implications of being a victim of cybercrime, particularly in terms of Mental Health, there are a few healthy coping strategies which can help.
Recognise your thoughts and emotions - It is important to identify and validate your thoughts and feelings at this time and acknowledge that these are normal reactions. Know that you are not alone in what you are going through.
Be Kind to yourself - Remind yourself of your positive traits, qualities, and achievements to avoid falling into a negative thinking trap. It is important to be compassionate and kind to yourself without judging yourself for what has happened. It helps to be mindful of your thoughts and feelings while putting them into perspective. Acknowledge and accept what has happened and that you are human. Through this time, avoid misusing substances or resorting to unhealthy coping mechanisms.
Stay away from self blame - Another aspect of being kind to yourself is not blaming yourself for what has happened. Very often victims of cyber crime develop a sense of guilt. Instead, put your focus on what you have control over and use your learnings to be more aware in future.
Focus on self-care - Give yourself a break if you need it and don’t be hard on yourself. This can be a difficult time and choose to focus on yourself and your wellbeing. Look after your physical health as well and ensure you are getting adequate sleep, movement and nutrition and that you are not withdrawing. You may also choose to engage in activities you enjoy, mindfulness exercises, practice grounding techniques, journaling and reframing your thoughts.
Consider seeking support/ help - Should you find yourself feeling overwhelmed or increasingly distressed, don’t hesitate to reach out for help to a Mental Health professional or a helpline. Other signs you might want to look out for include having a difficulty initiating tasks or taking care of responsibilities; a low or depressed mood, or increasing anxiety that is difficult to manage; loss of pleasure in activities; trouble with sleep and/or concentration; or other psychological symptoms that might cause you concern should be looked at as a sign to seek help. You may also find it beneficial to join support groups which might exist for victims of cyber crimes and share your experiences. These groups can also help you get peer support, gather support, resources and services to ensure your safety as well as reducing the risk of facing this again.
If someone you know has fallen victim to a cybercrime or scam, there are some ways in which you can help them. It can be hard to imagine ourselves in the shoes of someone who has fallen prey to a scam and more often than not, owing to the angst, stigma and shame, many might not be able to even speak about their plight. The main thing to remember is to be patient and non-judgemental. It is crucial to give them the time and space to process their feelings around the situation. It is important to empathise with them and allow them to express themselves without giving your judgement, even if you may not be able to entirely relate to their experiences. Additionally, victims of scams may harbour false beliefs such as there is something fundamentally wrong with them, which caused them to be scammed or that they are stupid or unworthy of love - in such times they need to be reminded that one mistake does not define them. You may also choose to help them to look at their learnings in terms of red flags around scams to look out for. Finally, if you feel that they are having a hard time, you may choose to work through a timeline with milestones/ goals to work towards as well as encourage them to seek professional help.
In an increasingly digitalised era with our dependence on technology and the internet increasing, cybercrimes and scams are becoming more sophisticated, and many people fall victim to them. This can be very upsetting and distressing to victims but what is important is to not feel embarrassed or ashamed by this. You have been the victim of a crime and it’s important to get the help you need. This isn’t your fault, so don’t let your wellbeing suffer over it.
Written by: Yash Mehrotra
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