May 7, 2013 3:43 pm
Updated: May 8, 2013 8:32 am

Not a ‘normal’ confinement: psychological effects of a decade hidden in Cleveland

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TORONTO – “I’ve been kidnapped and I’ve been missing for 10 years and I’m, I’m here, I’m free now.”

The voice of Amanda Berry, who disappeared at age 16 a decade ago, can be heard in the 911 call that has earned praise for her bravery and presence of mind after a decade in confinement.

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Two other women, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight, were held at a Cleveland house along with Berry since they were in their teens or early 20s. Three brothers—one of which is the homeowner—have been arrested: Ariel, Pedro and Onil Castro, ages 50 to 54.

Also found in the home was a 6-year-old child, who Cleveland police believe is Berry’s daughter.

With the investigation ongoing, and in-depth interviews with the young women and the suspects still to come, Global News takes a look at the psychological effects on those who experience events like kidnapping followed by long-term confinement.

Not a “normal” confinement

University of British Columbia cognitive science professor Peter Suedfeld specializes in how people adapt to extreme or unusual dangerous experiences, and their effect on psychological processes and behaviour.

Suedfeld said from what we know so far, this particular case includes many issues that would result in high levels of stress, beyond that of solely being confined.

He cites the lack of communication with the outside world, and the fact that the young women never knew whether they would be abused or killed during the past decade as much more stressful than “normal” kinds of confinement, such as prison.

“So the level of uncertainty and isolation would be much higher for them than for most in confinement,” said Suedfeld.

While it’s currently unknown whether the kidnappers treated the young women with relative kindness or roughly, Suedfeld explained that being cut off from their social circles and regular activities would be “highly traumatic” regardless.

On the other hand, Suedfeld considered the fact that there were three of them to have potentially improved the situation, assuming they could interact with each other.

“They had other people who were sharing the same general environment that they were, so that must have made it somewhat easier,” he explained.

While individual differences play a large part in how people adapt to stressful situations, Suedfeld said most will get used to their situation, particularly after a period as long as ten years—developing an “It’s horrible, but it’s bearable” kind of attitude.

The circumstances of the birth of the six-year-old child also found in the home have not been confirmed, other than details from a Cleveland police chief who said he believes her to be Berry’s daughter.

Suedfeld pointed to a kidnap victim who told him, “if you’re a woman and you’re kidnapped, the likelihood of being raped is very high,” though declined to comment specifically on Berry’s situation.

Re-entry shock

Escaping the house and returning to normal life will likely cause the young women some level of what’s called re-entry or reverse culture shock. It’s unknown whether they had access to television or other media, but even physical stimulation such as traffic and the number of people they’ll now be in contact with will be a drastic change.

“The kinds of things that teenagers of their age would have experienced in those years are things that are foreign to them,” said Suedfeld. He added that sometimes re-entry shock can be almost equivalent to the shock of being abducted in the first place, but clearly with a more positive overtone.

Speaking in relation to this kind of experience, Suedfeld said most people eventually readjust, make a good recovery and can lead normal lives, though “it never entirely goes away.”

Nightmares and sleep disturbances tend to be longer-term effects, while periods of anxiety and depression may also occur. The experience may cause generalized suspicion of other people, particularly men, and even psychosomatic symptoms like digestive upsets or headaches, said Suedfeld.

Moving on

When it comes to getting over extremely stressful experiences, Suedfeld said there are large individual differences: some people are more resilient than others, and there are different ways of coping.

Elizabeth Smart—who escaped after being raped and held captive for nine months by a preacher at age 14—attributed her relatively positive coping skills in part to her religious faith.

“That’s one of the things that pops up often in these accounts,” said Suedfeld, who notes it doesn’t have to be related to religion. “Some people have total faith that eventually they will be found and freed…whatever it is, if you have some strong belief that you will be okay, that’s very, very helpful.”

In terms of the future of these three young women, Suedfeld pointed to the need for counseling in terms of both adapting to memories of what has happened to them, and how to deal with their resumed “normal” life.

For the latest news on Amanda Berry’s case, click here.

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