Is Stockholm syndrome a mental illness? (A Brief Guide)

In this guide, we will answer the question “Is Stockholm syndrome a mental illness?”, why Stockholm Syndrome occurs, some of the possible reasons, a few examples, the symptoms associated with Stockholm Syndrome and under which situations or circumstances it is more likely to happen.

Is Stockholm syndrome a mental illness?

Stockholm Syndrome is not officially considered a mental illness or a disorder since it hasn’t been included or classified in any of the diagnostic manuals. However, it is considered a syndrome, which is characterized by the presentation of symptoms that often occur together. 

You may have seen or read stories or news where the victim or the person being held captive develops feelings towards their captor. However, you may wonder how it works and how you can identify it. 

Psychiatrists often use the term Stockholm Syndrome to refer to a set of psychological characteristics that were observed during a robbery to a bank in Stockholm, Sweden back in 1973. During this incident, two men held hostage four bank employees for six days inside the bank’s vault. When the situation was resolved, the hostages appeared to have developed positive feelings towards their captors and even felt compassion for them.

Why does this happen?

You may think in that situation that there is no way you could develop positive feelings towards someone that has held you against your will or abused you in any way. Terrifying and/or life-threatening situations are not supposed to be ideal to form emotional attachments or defend our captors. But there doesn’t seem to be a clear reason why Stockholm Syndrome.

However, psychologists suggest that this syndrome is not only present when being held captive but also can affect cult members and victims of domestic abuse. There is a famous example that exemplifies Stockholm Syndrome in the case of Patty Hearst, who was a Californian Newspaper heiress who was kidnapped by revolutionary militants in 1974. 

In the end, Patty seemed to have developed sympathy towards their captors and even joined them for a robbery, expressing her support to their militant cause. She was eventually caught and sentenced to prison. 

Another example of Stockholm Syndrome is when Elizabeth Smart, who was a Utah teen who was kidnapped in 2002 showed concern for the welfare of her abductors when the police intervened. Subsequently, some mental health experts have suggested that it seems to be a protective strategy when trying to cope with being a victim of emotional and/or physical abuse, kind of like a ‘form of survival’ or survival strategy.

Symptoms related to Stockholm Syndrome

As we have mentioned, it is not considered a disorder per se but as indicated by Cari Nierenberg on livescience.com:

“A person with Stockholm syndrome may start to identify with or form a close connection to the people who have taken him or her hostage, Norton told Live Science. The captive may begin to sympathize with the hostage-takers and may also become emotionally dependent on them, he said. That’s because a victim with Stockholm syndrome may become increasingly fearful and depressed and will show a decreased ability to care for themselves.” 

Is Stockholm syndrome a mental illness? (A Brief Guide)

Those with Stockholm Syndrome may exhibit the following characteristics:

  • The victim develops feelings towards their captor or the person abusing them.
  • The victim tends to develop a negative perception of and feelings towards police and authority figures or anyone that may try to help them get away from their captor.
  • The victim may begin to perceive their captor’s human side and believe they share the same values and goals.
  • The captor develops positive feelings towards the victim. The victim perceives that their captor cares about them. Most of the victims refer and characterize them as being ‘kind’ to them.
  • The victim supports or helps the captor. Instead of trying to escape their captor or abuser, try to help them instead of the police or authorities.the needs of the captor become a priority instead of their freedom. By this point, the victim has started to see the world through his/her captor’s ‘eyes’ and helping them is not something they feel forced to do.

However, there are no clear criteria on how to identify someone with Stockholm Syndrome and the symptoms usually tend to overlap other diagnoses such as post-traumatic stress disorder. 

When is Stockholm Syndrome more likely to occur?

There are some famous kidnappings (high profile cases) that have been said to have the characteristics of Stockholm Syndrome. For instance, the case of Patty Hearst as we have mentioned and others like the case of Natasha Kampusch and Mary McElroy.  

Consider how fear is a very powerful tool abusers or captors use but if captors decide not to harm their victims then the hostages may feel gratitude for their gesture. As indicated on Livescience.com:

“Hostages also learn that to survive, they must become attuned to the reactions of their captors and develop psychological traits that please those individuals, such as dependency and compliance.”

Examples of situations or circumstances where Stockholm Syndrome is most likely to occur

However, they all refer to kidnappings but in today’s society we could see Stockholm’s Syndrome exemplified in many other situations or circumstances such as:

  • Being in an abusive relationship. Research has indicated that people who have been abused may develop an emotional attachment towards their abuser. They can even start to change the perception they have about them and even feel sympathy for them.
Is Stockholm syndrome a mental illness? (A Brief Guide)
  • Being abused as a child. Abusers usually exert control over the people they abuse by threatening and harming their victims. They will try to comply with their demands simply to avoid upsetting them. When abusers show kindness, the victims tend to perceive it as a genuine feeling.
  • Sex trafficking. People involved in sex trafficking often have to depend on their abusers to cover their necessities. When the abuser provides and covers those necessities, the victim starts to develop positive feelings towards the abuser.

Is there a treatment?

There is not a specific treatment for Stockholm Syndrome but if you or someone close to you has developed Stockholm Syndrome there are some options such as counselling or psychotherapy for post-traumatic stress disorder. This can help with some of the related symptoms and the recovery of the individual. 

However, consider that depending on the severity of the symptoms, the person may need long-term psychological therapy for recovery. This type of therapy will help you understand better what is going and what happened so you can move forward. Most victims believe that everything that happened to them was their fault or somehow they provoked it but it is important to understand that no one deserves to be abused, kidnapped or harmed in any way. 

Why is this blog about Is Stockholm syndrome a mental illness important?

As we have mentioned when answering the question ‘Is Stockholm Syndrome a mental illness?’ how this Syndrome is not considered an official disorder and it is not classified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) in its latest version. However, there is a set of psychological characteristics. 

Moreover, some experts believe that Stockholm Syndrome is not limited only to cases of abduction or kidnapping but it can occur in other settings or circumstances where the victim develops positive feelings towards their abuser or the one that keeps them captive. However, there are more questions than answers when it comes to knowing the reasons why someone will develop Stockholm syndrome so more research needs to be performed on the subject.

Please feel free to leave any comments or thoughts about the content of this article!

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Is Stockholm syndrome a mental illness

Is Stockholm syndrome a psychological disorder?

Even though Stockholm Syndrome can be considered a psychological phenomenon, it is not considered a mental disorder nor is included in the Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders in its latest version. It is classified as a syndrome, which is considered a condition that is characterized by a set of symptoms that often occur together.

What are the symptoms of Stockholm Syndrome?

Some of the symptoms that someone with Stockholm Syndrome will experience are:

  • The victim develops feelings towards their captor or the person abusing them.
  • The victim tends to develop a negative perception of and feelings towards police and authority figures or anyone that may try to help them get away from their captor.
  • The victim may begin to perceive their captor’s human side and believe they share the same values and goals.

Why is it called Stockholm syndrome?

It is called Stockholm syndrome because it is derived from a robbery that went wrong in Stockholm, Sweden. In August of 1973, four employees of Sveriges Kreditbank were held hostage in the bank’s vault for up to six days and during this time they developed a bond with their captor. One of the victims told the police that they were treated with kindness, even though they were held against their will. The hostages experienced sympathy towards the person that held them captive and some of them even visited him in prison.

Is Stockholm syndrome brainwashing?

Stockholm Syndrome is sometimes referred to as brainwashing in the psychological aspect where the person who is being held captive starts to feel close to his or her captor(s), as well as agreeing with their agenda and demands. People with Stockholm Syndrome develop sympathy while they are held captive and some experts believe their behaviour is the result of a coping mechanism when dealing with traumatic situations where the survival instinct has a major role.

Is Beauty and the Beast about Stockholm Syndrome?

Some people consider the classic tale Beauty and the Beast as a clear case of Stockholm Syndrome since then, in the end, the Beauty falls in love with his captor, the Beast. However, there are divided opinions where others simply think it is a magic, charming and entertaining love story that teaches us how love can change us if we let it.

References 

Nierenberg, C. (2019, Jun.) What Is Stockholm Syndrome? Retrieved from livescience.com.

Robinson, A. (2019, Feb.) What Is Stockholm Syndrome? Is It Real? Retrieved from blog.prepscholar.com.

Holland, K. (2019, Nov.) What is Stockholm Syndrome and Who Does it Affect? Retrieved from healthline.com.

Is Stockholm syndrome a mental illness? (A Brief Guide)

Juanita Agboola

Juanita Agboola is the editor in chief of HFNE and an expert in mental health online. She has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 2012. All Guides are reviewed by our editorial team which constitutes various clinical psychologists, PhD and PsyD colleagues.