The term ‘Stockholm syndrome’ was born after a bank robbery 50 years ago. What exactly is it?

Medical experts disagree on whether term should exist -- and does it apply to mental health today?

1973: A bank robbery gone wrong in Stockholm, Sweden, turns into a hostage crisis. Over the next five days, the hostages began to sympathize with their captors, leading to the term "Stockholm syndrome." Pictured is the building where the bank, Kreditbanken, was located in Stockholm's Norrmalmstorg square. (Tage Olsin via Wikimedia Commons)

Have you ever heard of the term “Stockholm syndrome?”

Well, Wednesday marks a little history since the incident that led to its creation took place in Sweden.

The short definition of “Stockholm syndrome” is that it’s an emotional response in which abuse and hostage victims have positive feelings toward their abuser or captors, according to WebMD.

Here’s an explanation of how the term came about, and how it applies to mental health today.

The creation of ‘Stockholm syndrome’

Back on Aug. 23, 1973, four people were taken hostage at a bank in Stockholm, Sweden by then-32-year-old criminal Jan-Erik Olsson, who was later joined by another friend from prison to aid him in the hold-up.

The standoff lasted six days, but by the end of it, the four hostages had developed an affection for Olsson, saying he treated them well, according to a BBC article in 2013.

In a 1974 article that appeared in the New Yorker, writer Daniel Lang talked with the hostages and Olsson, and wrote a detailed piece about the incident.

One hostage, Elisabeth Oldgren, said she thought it was kind of Olsson to allow her to leave the vault where they were originally being held so she could move around the floor of the bank, even if there was a rope fixed around her neck.

Another hostage, Sven Safstrom, said he felt gratitude when Olsson told him he would shoot him, but pointed out he wouldn’t kill him and would let him get drunk first.

One of the other hostages, Kristin Ehnmark, told then-Sweden Prime Minister Olof Palme during a phone call from the vault that she wanted to leave the bank with the people holding her hostage, adding she was afraid the police would attack and cause the hostages to die.

On the other hand, some feel it wasn’t necessarily a “syndrome” the hostages had, but rather a survival strategy.

Lang said he interviewed Olsson and got a sense he felt a connection with the hostages, just like they did with him.

“Things weren’t all one way,” Lang wrote. “Olsson spoke harshly. ‘It was the hostages’ fault. They did everything I told them to do. If they hadn’t, I might not be here now. Why didn’t any of them attack me? They made it hard to kill. They made us go on living together day after day, like goats, in that filth. There was nothing to do but get to know each other.’”

Olsson was eventually taken into custody on Aug. 28, 1973 and sentenced to 10 years in prison before his release. The hostages did not testify in court against their captors.

How can the term apply to mental health today?

After the term “Stockholm syndrome” was coined by criminologist and psychiatrist Nils Bejerot, it was used in 1974 by famed lawyer F. Lee Bailey to defend client Patty Hearst in a robbery trial.

Hearst, the granddaughter of tycoon William Randolph Hearst, was kidnapped from her apartment in 1974 and held hostage for ransom by a group called the Symbionese Liberation Army. More than two months after the abduction, Hearst committed a bank robbery as a member of the SLA, which led to Bailey saying she was brainwashed, and suffered from Stockholm syndrome.

Hearst was eventually found guilty and served seven years in prison, but the case brought even more attention to the term.

Today, there is a debate in the medical community over whether the term should even exist, according to Medical News Today.

“Stockholm syndrome” is not an official psychological diagnosis.

But it can effect people in several settings, according to WebMD, such as in cases of child, sexual, physical or emotional abuse, behavior of coaches in sports, or even in sex trafficking. It can lead to negative health effects such as guilt, difficulty trusting others, embarrassment about emotions, social withdrawal, anxiety and depression, according to WebMD.

About the Author:

Keith is a member of Graham Media Group's Digital Content Team, which produces content for all the company's news websites.