Cyber attacks also attack people’s mental health

Posted on 04/10/2023

I feel violated.

Last year, my friend, “Sarah” asked to meet me at a café.

It’s not her real name, yet names are at the crux of this opinion piece.

When I saw her, I instantly knew something was wrong. She was picking her thumbs, moving in a stilted, jittery way; glancing sideways and breathing shallowly.

Sarah told me that her personal information had been compromised as a result of a cyberattack on an organisation that she did business with.

That’s when she told me she felt violated.

She showed me the organisation’s text message, and yes, it stated quite clearly that as a result of the cyberattack, her personal details had been disclosed.

Sarah said that she felt a sense of helplessness and confusion; and that her privacy had been hacked.

Due to past, distressing life experiences, Sarah had guarded her privacy with ferocity. Such ferocity, that she’d built a number of emotional walls to keep out any breaches.

In her words: “I feel like someone I trusted, opened the door to my house and let a thief in, and then gave them the code to a vault with my important information and belongings in it. I feel like protecting my personal details is now out of my control.”

She’s probably not alone in those feelings, and definitely not alone in becoming an unwitting victim.

The Australian Cyber Security Centre received 67,500 cybercrime reports in the 2020-2021 financial year, which is an increase of 13% compared to the previous year. In Australia alone, there’s an attack every 8 minutes. Globally, some experts predict there is one every 39 seconds.

The attack on Sarah wasn’t personal because it was directed at an organisation. No one sat in a dark room, saying, “Let me target Sarah and cause her grief.”

And yet, grief is what she experienced. She was left floundering, with no emotional and psychological support. She turned to me, her friend, who is also a Self Directed Healing practitioner and Hypnotherapist, who helped her by sharing immediate tools and strategies.

But what if we didn’t know each other? Would Sarah have paid to see a professional, or instead proceeded to freefall, like so many would in such a difficult situation?

With the increase in global cybercrime resources, there sadly isn’t an equally increasing number of resources focusing on how to deal with the stress and psychological impact of such crimes.

Yet, the stress can be debilitating.

The carnage begins in the cyber world but the damage is felt in the real world, where it is human beings like us who must scramble to deal with the aftermath of such crimes.

When organisations are hacked, it’s not uncommon for victims on both sides of the cybercrime fence (staff and affected customers) to feel a sense of helplessness, exposure and vulnerability; which in turn affects sleep, energy levels, self-esteem, confidence, joy, purpose and motivation.

In some cases, people turn to alcohol or drugs to self-medicate, and some even experience crippling anxiety and/or depression.

The psychological impact of cyberattacks is affecting literally millions of people around the globe. In fact, Dr Maria Bada, research associate at the Cambridge Cybercrime Centre at the University of Cambridge has said: “Depending on who the attackers and the victims are, the psychological effects of cyberattacks may even rival those of traditional terrorism.”

Cybercrime is not a new problem, but it’s an escalating problem.

Every stolen piece of information can steal a person’s sense of safety.

Every compromised database can compromise someone’s mental health.

Every hacker’s demand can hold an innocent person’s wellbeing to ransom.

For Sarah, the cybercrime dredged up past traumas that needed to be worked through. It was a case of one step forward, three steps back.

With burgeoning attacks, it would be beneficial for companies to be proactive about protecting their staff’s mental health, not just their company’s data. And if a breach occurs, to offer customers both technical advice and wellbeing resources – or at the very least, point them in the right direction.

While people can certainly turn to Lifeline, Beyond Blue and other helplines, I wonder if a national mental health helpline specialising in cybercrime would also be useful, so as not to stretch the limits of existing helplines, and to offer cybercrime-specific support?

In a 2022 study by the Australian National University, it was found that one in three Australians had been affected by data breaches; so around 6.4 million people in the 12 months prior.

The word “millions” normalises something that is anything but normal. Within every big number, there are real people. Those people have names, which can be plucked by the unscrupulous to unravel their lives for fraudulent financial gain.

Perhaps, like Sarah, your name was one of them?

Perhaps, like Sarah, it was more than just your data that was breached?

And perhaps, like Sarah, you would have benefited from emotional and mental health support?

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