The toll data breaches take on your mental health

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After a restorative getaway last July – a week in Stockholm, another exploring Norway’s fjords and a picturesque hike deep into the peaceful wilds of western Sweden’s forests – Christopher Lane returned home to his Chicago condo and an overflowing mailbox. 

A nondescript envelope stamped “Important Update – Open Immediately” caught his attention. Inside was an alarming notice that his medical and financial information had been stolen.

“As the news sank in, I felt dizzy with shock,” said Lane, 53, a professor of English and the medical humanities at Northwestern University. 

Details of the data breach were scarce. The company had filed for bankruptcy. Advice from a helpline was “next to useless,” Lane says. He had no way of knowing how much of his data had been compromised or what the consequences would be.

Lane channeled his helplessness and frustration into Side Effects, his mental health and public health blog at Psychology Today, to help others in similar predicaments and raise awareness. 

As breach after breach exposes the vulnerability of systems that are supposed to guard our private information, Lane’s experience has become distressingly common. So have his feelings about it.

Think of it as a hidden but growing epidemic.

Mental health professionals say data breaches and other cyber crimes are increasingly taking a heavy psychological toll on the millions of Americans whose personal information is plundered by fraudsters.

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It’s not just the nightmarish process of clearing your name and credit history or the struggle to get credit or loans, housing, employment or medical services after a breach. Victims wrestle with feelings of powerlessness and vulnerability. Their sleep can be disrupted, energy levels decrease. They self-medicate with alcohol, drugs or food. For some, the aftereffects are more severe: bouts of depression and anxiety, even post-traumatic stress disorder.



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