Jaycee Dugard, Kidnap Victims and PTSD

Health Writer

For the past week I have watched with joy and with horror the events surrounding Jaycee Dugard. After 18 years of living in captivity, of having two children but being robbed of raising them (they believed she was their sister), of having to live her life according to someone else's whims, she is free and has been reunited with her mother and her sister. First, let me say my thoughts and prayers go out to Jaycee, her children and her family. I hope they will find the joy and happiness that must have been missing from their lives.

But I also wonder, how do you get over something like that? Having lived in an abusive marriage (I certainly in no way am comparing my situation to hers), I can tell you leaving is just the beginning of recovery. Besides physical abuse, there is often emotional abuse and emotional manipulation. In some cases of abduction, captors may subject the victim to statements such as "your parents are dead" or "if you try to escape I will kill you and your family." Such statements, especially when told to a child over and over, can create a sense of hopelessness. The trauma of living with your captors, having to find ways to survive, and as we have heard, feeling guilty for creating an emotional bond with your captors, all take an enormous emotional toll.

According to experts, it could take years for Jaycee to build a new life, develop feelings of normalcy and create new bonds based on trust. Elizabeth Smart, who was kidnapped and held captive for nine months, talked about her life after the kidnapping with CNN's Anderson Cooper and said it was important for her to spend lots of time with her family and worked to make sure the event did not consume her life.

Some experts believe Jaycee is at risk for developing post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), although, obviously, it is much too early to tell and the experts are only speculating as they have not seen or spoken with Jaycee. A study in Italy in 2000, showed that 46 percent of kidnap victims suffered from PTSD and 38 percent were diagnosed with depression. All experts agree, however, that therapy is needed and the process of recovering and reintegrating herself into society will be a long, tough road.

Post traumatic stress disorder is a type of anxiety disorder that can occur after being exposed to a terrifying event or situation, normally when physical harm either occurred or was threatened to occur. PTSD includes persistent and frightening memories and flashbacks of the incident (or incidents) and can leave the sufferer feeling numb and unable to create emotional bonds with other people, even those they were once close to.

Symptoms of PTSD can include physical symptoms, such as insomnia, being easily started, trembling. Emotional symptoms can include avoidance of situations that may trigger memories, losing interest in activities, depression, or guilt.

Treatment of PTSD usually includes psychotherapy and possibly medication. Cognitive behavioral therapy may work as well, using exposure therapy to help someone relive situations and understand he or she is now safe.

Jaycee Dugard, and her children, are currently surrounded by a number of mental health professionals and their family. Hopefully, the love, support and medical care they receive over the next few months will enable them to enjoy life and create new emotional bonds with those that love them.


"For Kidnap Victims, Recovery Can be slow, if at All", 2009, The Los Angeles Times

"Stockholm Syndrome", 2009, Aug 31, Laura Fitzpatrick, Time Magazine

"Victims of Repeated Abuse Suffer Complex Trauma", 2009, Aug, Madison Park, CNN

"Jaycee Dugard: Long Road Back After Kidnapping", 2009, Sept 1, Marie Car Frias, Maureen White, Katie Escherich, ABC News, Good Morning America