Emotionally Disturbed/Mentally Ill Stalkers

Sept. 17, 2007
'Every breath you take, every move you make...I'll be watching you. '

1.4 million people are stalked annually in the United States. 1 in 12 women and 1 in 45 men will be stalked in their lifetime. 77% of women and 64% of men know their stalkers. 87% of stalkers are male. Less than two percent of stalking cases result in homicide. However, the emotional toll on the victims is significant, especially if you don't know who the stalker is, or if he/she is mentally ill.

Forensic psychologists have identified three types of stalking: simple obsessional, love obsessional, and erotomania. The three defining elements that are indicative of the typology of stalker are: (1) the stalker's relationship with the victim, (2) the stalker's motive in pursuing the victim, (3) the stalker's behavior. All stalkers are obsessional; they maintain persistent thoughts and ideas about their victims, often for years.

Not all stalkers meet the criteria for any specific or serious psychiatric disorder. However, some of the most extreme and dangerous stalkers are those fueled by a mental illness. Primary diagnoses for mentally ill stalkers include schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or a delusional disorder. Some stalkers have personality disorders (identified by a pervasive abnormal pattern of behavior related to thinking, mood, personal relations, and impulse control). Specifically, these stalkers have antisocial, borderline, histrionic, narcissistic, dependent, or obsessive-compulsive personality disorder characteristics. Substance abuse and/or dependence frequently are contributing factors. As a rule of thumb, the less of a relationship that actually existed between the victim and stalker prior to the stalking, the more mentally disturbed the stalker is.

The Simple Obsessional Stalker

The most common form of stalking is simple obsessional. The victim of the simple obsessional stalker usually knows his/her stalker well and was in some form of relationship with him/her: an ex-spouse, ex-lover, friend, former boss, or co-worker. The obsessional activities begin after the relationship has ended or is headed for termination. The stalker often perceives that he/she was wronged by the victim. The simple obsessional stalker's motivation is to mend the relationship or to seek some type of retribution. Virtually all domestic violence cases involving stalking fall under this category.

The Love Obsessional Stalker

The love obsessional stalker is a stranger to, or casual acquaintance of the victim. The stalker develops a love obsession or fixation on another person with whom they have had no personal relationship. Not only does the love obsessional stalker attempt to live out his/her fantasies, he/she expects the victim to play an assigned role of loving them back with adoration and devotion. Initially the love obsessional stalker's motivation is to make the victim aware of his/her existence. Later he/she expects them to reciprocate his/her feelings. When the stalker fails to establish the relationship, he/she frequently harasses the victim.

The Erotomanic Stalker

Erotomania is a delusion in which the stalker believes the individual of his/her love, loves him/her back. The victim would readily return the stalker's affection, but are not able to because of some external influence. The delusion is based on a belief that the victim is the perfect match for them and that they are destined to be together forever. Erotomania frequently is not based on a sexual attraction. The erotomanic stalker fantasizes more about a romantic love and/or a spiritual union. The victim is usually of a higher status than the stalker. Efforts to contact the victim are common, but erotomanic stalkers may keep the delusion a secret. They study their victims, often from afar. They are commonly referred to as celebrity stalkers or obsessed fans.

Stalking and the Mentally Ill

The mentally ill stalker can be a simple obsessional, a love obsessional, or an erotomanic. Psychotic and delusional stalkers simply cannot separate fact from fiction. Even an imaginary love is better than no love at all. All delusional stalkers hold onto a fixed false belief that keeps them bonded to their victims. The core of their obsession is based on fantasy; what they cannot attain in reality is achieved through this fantasy. When they attempt to act out this fantasy in real life, they expect the victim to return the affection. When no affection is returned, the stalker often reacts with threats and intimidation. When the threats and intimidation don't accomplish what they hoped, the stalker can become violent and even homicidal. What makes the delusional stalker more dangerous is their tendency to objectify their victims. They view their victim not as a human being, but as an object that they alone must possess and control. Delusional stalkers are the most tenacious type of stalkers, with delusions lasting an average of ten years.

The typical profile of delusional stalkers is that of a single, socially immature loner, who has been unable to establish or sustain close relationships with others. Delusional stalkers rarely date and have had few, if any, sexual relationships. They usually come from an emotionally barren or severely abusive childhood; growing up to have a very poor sense of their own identities. Most delusional stalkers have a predisposition toward psychosis.

The common victim of the delusional stalker is most frequently a person of a higher socio-economic class/status who has had little, if any, previous contact with the stalker. Yet, the stalker believes that he/she already has a close bond with the victim, or convinced they will in the future. Delusional stalkers choose victims who are unattainable in some way; the victim may be already involved in a relationship; frequently it is someone who has been kind to them; a therapist, clergyman, doctor, work supervisor, teacher, or even the police officer who stopped them for a traffic violation but did not cite them. Those in helping professions are particularly vulnerable to delusional stalkers. The professional may have been the only person who has ever treated the stalker with warmth. The stalker, who already has difficulty separating reality from fantasy, construes the helper's compassion into a delusion of intimacy.

Celebrities and politicians are frequent victims of the delusional stalker. The stalker usually becomes aware of their victim through the media (cinema, television, radio, newspapers). He/she studies the object of their attention, collects articles, movies, and/or memorabilia related to their victim. He/she establishes a comprehensive delusional fantasy in which they have a special or unique, even mystical, relationship with the victim, even if they have never met. The stalker believes the victim is communicating with him or her telepathically or by using a secret code that only they know the meaning of. Any contact the victim has with the stalker becomes a positive reinforcement of a relationship. Any type of response by the victim is seen as an invitation to continue the stalker's pursuit. When the object of the stalker's attention says "no," he/she rationalizes their intent away and may then focus of the perceived situation or person the stalker believes is standing in the way of a relationship. "Her husband made her get that restraining order, she really loves me, he is the problem," or "His agent told him it would be bad for his career if we were involved, but he really loves me, that agent better stay out of it.." Infamous erotomanic stalkers include; Robert John Bardo, who killed actress Rebecca Schaeffer, and Margaret Ray, who stalked David Letterman, Ray later committed suicide.

Paranoia may make the delusional stalker act aggressively towards a third party. They may believe there is a conspiracy to keep their love objects away from them. If they can eliminate the intrusive third party, they believe they will protect the object of their desire, and consummate the fantasy relationship. Paranoid stalkers frequently come into contact with law enforcement during misguided pursuits to rescue the individual from someone or some imagined danger.

It is imperative that victims of the delusional, psychotic, or paranoid stalker have absolutely no contact with the suspect. Not only will attempts to appease or ignore the stalker not work, they may add fuel to the stalker's obsessional delusions. Restraining and protective orders against the delusional stalker, though important and occasionally helpful, frequently don't work and may further escalate the stalking. The stalkers' belief that they and their victim are destined to be together commonly overrides any fear they may have of the legal consequences of violating a TRO.

Threat Assessment for Violence in Stalkers

Stalking may lead to violence including great bodily harm or death. When a stalker is identified it is essential to determine the stalker's potential for violence. A threat assessment to determine potentially violent stalkers is essential. Early identification of the violent stalker can facilitate appropriate law enforcement and/or psychiatric intervention.

The Three Strongest Predictors of Violence by a Stalker

  1. History of substance abuse
  2. History of previous violence.
  3. History of mental illness.

Additional Characteristics of a Potentially Violent Stalker

  • Access to the victim or the victim's family
  • Possession of weapons
  • Present or past threats to kill the victim or others
  • A disregard for the consequences of violating protection orders
  • Previous history of stalking
  • Past instances of hostage taking
  • Suicidal tendencies
  • High degree of obsession, possessiveness, or jealousy.


There are federal and state laws pertaining to stalking. 15 states classify stalking as a felony upon the first offense. 34 classify stalking as a felony upon the second offense and/or when the crime involves aggravating factors. Larger, metropolitan law enforcement agencies frequently have anti-stalking task forces to investigate and handle stalking cases. If the suspect is mentally ill, he/she may be involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital for a 72 hour evaluation as a danger to others, or ordered by the court to obtain outpatient mental health treatment. If the stalker has a treatable psychiatric disorder, he/she may benefit from psychotropic medications or therapy. However, truly antisocial or psychopathic stalkers should get their treatment in jail or prison.

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