Crime casts a long and dark shadow over our Rainbow Nation, and South Africans have long been living with the reality that lawbreaking and misconduct are everyday occurrences.  In fact, as long as we’ve had law to enforce, we’ve had criminals to break them.  It is, sadly, an unavoidable part of societal living.

What’s perhaps the most heartbreaking part of criminal acts is that they often occur at the expense of someone else; victims and survivors of crime usually experience long-lasting trauma and psychological issues after being attacked or left without possessions.  So one would think that there are clear procedures to deal with the aftermath of crime, but, unfortunately, that is not the case.

So, we’ve unpacked some of the most common emotional consequences of being a victim of crime to shed light on the fact that sufferers aren’t alone in what they are experiencing and that psychological help is incredibly beneficial.


The first of these emotional hurdles is denial. The pain caused by others is often quite a weight on someone’s shoulders. This is especially true of physical or sexual assault. The pressure of the criminal justice system being added can make the easiest method to cope a complete refusal of acknowledgement. “If it didn’t happen, I wasn’t hurt.” This may not appear as overtly as other symptoms, but may express itself as an increase in aggression or a strong desire to move away from speaking of the crime. Victims in denial may act as if the idea of something bothering is almost an alien concept.


Feeling powerless, being hurt or limited in life creates a frustration that can manifest as anger or rage. Either at the criminal, crime, family and friends or even on a personal level. It might be all of the above. This can make the victim seem unrelatable or abrasive, but this a very appropriate reaction. Being placed at the mercy of uncontrollable circumstances causes one to try and establish control in other areas of life. When this is unsuccessful or incorrectly managed, exerting this emotional excess on the nearest object is a coping mechanism. It can feel hurtful when attempting to comfort a loved one is met with “a bad attitude” and sharp words. But try and temper this feeling. It is important to acknowledge that while some behaviour is not acceptable, it is understandable.


This is a powerful emotion that can drive many aspects of one’s life in varying degrees. While we might imagine ‘fear’ to be a staple of horror movies, fear is a very real, very crippling emotion. After experiencing a crime, it can dramatically change how one lives their daily routine (if that routine exists at all). Some may feel fearful of being robbed or attacked again, for example. Some may fear repercussions from the criminals as a result of judicial proceedings. Some might even be afraid of the possibility that friends and family may become targets of similar crime. The world becomes a much starker place that can be harder to ignore. Driving at night may suddenly become a risk someone won’t take. You may notice a tendency for a victim of crime to become house-bound or try to distance themselves from stressful triggers (i.e. preferring to drive with company after a hijacking incident).

Other side effects of being a victim of crime

Another branch of symptoms may include those of a somatic (from the Greek ‘Soma’, which means ‘pertaining to the body’) nature. These are easier to spot, but might not be linked to stress as quickly. These can include insomnia, lethargy, a lack of appetite or extreme hunger to less overt changes such as headaches, nausea, muscle tension or a drop in libido. It could even show itself as a common cold or sickness due a drop in immune functionality.  The human body handles stress in a variety of ways meaning that every person can have a unique experience when dealing with stress. One might encounter all of these symptoms while someone else may face just one.

Advice for Family and Friends who are Approached for Support

  • Try to remain calm, patient and open-minded, and DO NOT challenge them on how or why it happened to them.
  • Avoid victim-blaming. No one is to blame for someone else’s decision to commit a crime.
  • Do your best to reassure them of their safety and that there is no immediate threat of further danger.
  • You may have to be there for some in the long-term so be sure to ask them what they need. It’s important not to lose sight on your own well-being, though.
  • Let the person know that you are more than happy to the ‘go-between’ with police, medical staff and others – if they want you to be.
  • Offer to help with everyday tasks, such as cooking and cleaning.  Although, these activities might actually help the person establish a routine, so again- communication is key.
  • Avoid statements like “it could’ve been worse” or “you’ll be fine in no time”: they are not helpful in any shape, way or form.
  • If there is little improvement, make the suggestion of seeking professional help.  You can tell the person that you will help source a therapist or psychologist and even accompany them to sessions if they would like you to.

Some final thoughts

It’s important to reiterate the fact that crime is not chosen by the victims. It is not in the human nature to ask for victimisation. Empathy, on the other hand, is part of human nature. Asking for and giving help does not make one weak; in fact, it shows a strength of character that is remarkable. With help and guidance, many can begin the process of reconstruction and normalisation. To manage and acknowledge events provides not only catharsis but an opportunity to grow. With a support structure we can come to grips with where we are right now and learn the steps needed to minimise future trauma. While crime is a reality it shouldn’t have to define your reality.

LifeLine South Africa
24-hour crisis intervention service. “Emotional First Aid station”. Free, confidential telephone counselling, rape counselling, trauma counselling, Aids counselling, and a range of other services. Not-for-profit organisation.

  • National counselling line: 0861-322-322
    Counsellors help callers with challenges such as trauma, suicide, and relationship issues.
  • Website:
  • National Aids helpline: 0800-012-322
    Run in conjunction with the Department of Health, this national toll-free helpline receives around 3 000 calls a day.
  • Stop Gender Violence helpline: 0800-150-150
    National toll-free helpline for survivors, witnesses and perpetrators of gender-based violence.
  • Directory of Life Line centres and programmes