Taking threats seriously

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. Well actually, we all know that words can be very hurtful and make us fear for our lives. If someone threatens to kill another person, how concerned should that person be? How often do those that make threats follow through and harm their victims?

Some people are more likely than others to be on the receiving end of death threats. Politicians, public figures, the police, mental health clinicians, “battered women”, and those who have been stalked are often subjected to threats in both written and oral form. Threats occur in a large variety of contexts and relationships, as seen between lovers, neighbours, work colleagues, and as part of road rage. In terms of the latter, I note that Justin Bieber recently came to police attention for allegedly threatening to kill a neighbour who complained about his driving habits. Some threats appear to be made in jest while others convey serious intentions.

Some individuals threaten to kill others in an attempt to shock and frighten their victims, delivering a verbal blow. Others deliver threats as an expression of emotion, their feelings boiling over due to frustration or anger. Of particular concern, is the group that threaten others in a manipulating, controlling, and intimidating manner. They use threats in an attempt to stop an intimate partner from leaving them, to resolve family disputes, and as a means of seeking revenge.

The range of contexts in which threats occur and the issue of underreporting makes it a difficult subject to research. Recent Australian research found that those who already had convictions for threatening to kill others and subsequently went on to kill their victims, was quite rare in frequency. Nearly half of the threateners went on to commit a violent act over a ten year period, however, the nature of the violence was generally at the lower end of the severity range. Further, the majority of their victims were not the ones initially threatened. This suggests that the offenders were prone to violence regardless of their threatening natures.

Threateners clearly have limited coping skills to meet their needs and to deal with their insecurities, frustrations, and anger. There is added concern regarding those with a history of violence, active symptoms of mental illness, and who abuse alcohol and drugs as part of their lifestyle.

In New Zealand, like in most countries, it is an offence to threaten to kill someone or to cause them grievous bodily harm. A crime of this nature can incur a prison term of up to seven years. Victims are encouraged to seek help from the police or organisations such as Women’s Refuge or Victim Support. Any evidence of threats should be kept and produced. Seeking help can be scary, but not reporting the threat due to a fear of retaliation, only serves to reinforce habitual behaviour. Nobody needs to live in fear of violence based on the power of words.


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