UK study: Mental illnesses may drive extremist sympathies
Men and women with common mental disorders, especially comorbid depression and dysthymia, are particularly susceptible to adopting extremist views, a study from the UK has found.
These findings could have important implications, as “extremist views and attitudes are more common than acts of terrorism and may indicate a preliminary stage of the radicalization process that can be prevented,” according a team of researchers from the Queen Mary University led by Professor Kamaldeep Bhui. [J Nerv Ment Dis 2017;205:54-57; J Interpers Violence 2010;25:919-928]
In the study, Bhui and colleagues conducted a population survey of 618 white British and Pakistani people living in Blackburn with Darwen, Bradford, and Luton. Majority of the respondents (n=341, 61 percent) condemned violent protest and terrorist actions, while 73 (13 percent) were sympathizers; the remaining 144 (26 percent) were neutral.
Respondents with major depression and comorbid dysthymia had a greater propensity to extremist sympathies (risk ratio [RR], 4.07, 95 percent confidence interval [CI], 1.37–12.05; p=0.01) compared with those who had no such conditions. The same was true for respondents who had symptoms of anxiety (RR, 1.09, 95 percent CI, 1.03–1.15; p=0.002) or post-traumatic stress disorder (RR, 1.03, 95 percent CI, 1.01–1.05; p=0.003). [Br J Psychiatry 2020;217:547-554]
Extremist views were also predominant among young adults (<21 vs ≥21 years: RR, 3.05, 95 percent confidence interval [CI], 1.31–7.06; p=0.01), white British (vs Pakistanis: RR, 2.24, 95 percent CI, 1.25–4.02; p=0.007), and those with criminal convictions (RR, 2.23, 95 percent CI, 1.01–4.95; p=0.048).
The study drives home the message that extremism be considered more generally, Bhui said. “The link we've found between poor mental health and extremist thoughts shows that we need much more progressive thinking and better research on the causes of extremism and what might be done to prevent it.”
What makes individuals with depression—especially the chronic form that causes people to lose hope, interest in life, and in turn the capability to overcome adversity—receptive to extreme ideologies may be explained by volitional incompetence. This means that they are “less able to manage radicalizing messages and could end up adopting extremist sympathies,” Bhui pointed out. [Behav Sci Law 2014;32:286-305]
“This provides yet another reason why it's so important to think about our communities' mental health,” he added.
One unique aspect of the study is the use of an established measure of sympathies for violent protest and terrorism (SVPT). The researchers were aware that measuring actual extremist behaviour and engagement with extremist networks is complex. In its place, measuring sympathies for such acts allows an ethical examination of potential susceptibility to violent behaviour and terrorism in the population at large, circumventing incrimination or breaches of confidentiality.
Bhui and his colleagues believe that SVPT can help test prevention policies and practices, if the measure were to be adopted in national surveys.
One caveat to the SVPT measure is that respondents need only sympathize with one of the seven items (ie, committing minor crime, committing violence in political protests, organizing radical terrorist groups, threatening to commit terrorist actions, committing terrorist actions as a form of political protest, using bombs, and using suicide bombs to fight against injustices) to be considered to hold extreme views. Using a threshold of two or more items to classify sympathizers led to consistent point estimates, although the power was compromised with only 23 people then showing sympathies.