FROM TRAUMA TO TRANSFORMATION
Mental health holds significant relevance within the realm of radicalization and violent extremism. When individuals entrenched in radical ideologies also face mental health challenges, tailored therapeutic interventions become integral to the disengagement process. Broadly, mental health issues encountered in cases of radicalization and violent extremism can be classified into three overarching categories: personality disorders, psychosis, and psychological issues.
Personality disorder and psychosis
Every individual possesses a unique blend of personality traits and moral characteristics that can evolve and adapt in various situations. In normal circumstances, people exhibit diverse behaviours depending on their environment, desires, and interests. For instance, they may display patience with family members but impatience with colleagues, or be helpful towards strangers but negligent towards friends in times of need. The crucial concepts here are balance and plasticity.
However, individuals with personality disorders lack this equilibrium and flexibility. Those with sociopathic personality traits, for instance, perpetually exhibit impatience and self-centredness, irrespective of their surroundings. They disregard moral norms, exhibit limited empathy towards others, and consistently react in a selfish manner, even when someone attempts to offer assistance. Consider the following example:
Mr. A is a 35-year-old suffering from a sociopathic personality disorder. His journey began as a juvenile delinquent, eventually transitioning into a criminal lifestyle in adulthood, resulting in multiple incarcerations. At the age of 30, he embraced Islam and proceeded to organize recruitment and logistical support networks for acts of terrorism, alongside engaging in criminal activities to finance his jihadist endeavours. Remarkably, devoid of pathological delusions, he manages to lead an ostensibly "normal" life, efficiently coordinating his illicit operations. Regrettably, due to his lack of emotional and intellectual adaptability, be it in matters of crime or religion, his actions consistently manifest in the same self-centred and violent manner.
Individuals with personality disorders channel their innate violence through various ideologies, just as they would through crime or sexuality. This partly explains their ease of transition from crime to jihad: their personality and behaviour remain unchanged, but the means of expression have shifted.
In the case of psychosis, the issue lies not in the balance or plasticity of one's traits and characteristics, but rather in the permanent disturbance of the psyche caused by pathological mechanisms. Delusions and hallucinations disrupt normal emotional and intellectual functioning, even in individuals who may appear pleasant and composed in their daily lives. For some, the pathology hinders the natural capacities of thought and emotion production. It is worth noting that the majority of individuals with psychosis pose no harm to others, but rather are vulnerable and often become victims of aggression.
Mr. B, at the age of 19, left for Syria in 2016 after being captivated by news reports and videos from Daesh. He discovered that war, with its excitement and violence, was the only source of emotions for him—combining indignation, anger, and even pleasure. As violence became his sole means of experiencing any kind of emotion, he increasingly embraced it. His decision to go to Syria was driven by the desire to live in a perpetual state of stimulation. However, just a week after his arrival, surviving an improvised explosive device nearly cost him his life, prompting him to return home. Subsequently, following his arrest and imprisonment, a psychiatrist diagnosed him with schizophrenia, the most prevalent form of psychosis. With appropriate medication, he no longer entertains thoughts of jihad.
Other psychological factors in radicalization
There are other psychological issues involved in radicalization, such as addiction, pathological bereavement, social or family exclusion, among many others. In such cases, radicalization is associated with frustration, anger, and a sense of being misunderstood or left out. It is important to note that these issues are not exclusive to the process of radicalization; they are commonly experienced by individuals who seek mental health support. Additionally, a history of childhood or adolescent sexual assault is frequently found in the biographies of women involved in jihad.
Ms. C, a 23-year-old woman, endured repeated abuse at the age of 16 from her brothers upon discovering that she was having a love affair. At 17, she was raped by an uncle. At 19, she married a fighter online and travelled to Syria to support the jihad war effort. After her husband's death three years later, she decided to return home with her two children, no longer wanting to raise them in a war-torn country. She also expressed disappointment with the unnecessary cruelty of Daesh towards prisoners. Initially, practising her religious beliefs in a strict manner helped her cope with the sexual traumas she had endured. However, upon witnessing the jihadist soldiers committing similar acts on the women they had taken as prisoners, she realized the complete distortion of their practice of Islam.
Radicalized individuals who suffer from psychological issues, such as trauma, embrace propaganda not because it is true, but because it serves a purpose. It provides them with feelings of hope, consolation, redemption, and a sense of brother- or sisterhood. It enables them to join a group where others share similar psychological struggles, offering acceptance and understanding without stigmatization.
Effective Approaches & Guidelines
When dealing with radicalized individuals with mental health problems, a comprehensive clinical care strategy can be pursued through three interconnected approaches: addressing the ideology, modifying behaviour, and tackling grooming mechanisms. Depending on the specific case, certain dimensions may carry more significance than others. Understanding Ms. C's commitment requires acknowledging the importance of the notion of purity and the punishment of rapists within Daesh's ideology. For others, exposing the manipulative tactics employed by recruiters can play a vital role in the disengagement process.
In practical implementation, regardless of the nature of the mental health issues, certain guidelines can be followed:
Firstly, identify the specific issue (such as psychosis or depression) and offer an appropriate therapy that does not directly address the radical beliefs, but instead aims to establish a bond. Utilize that bond to separate violent behaviour from the beliefs.
Channel and alleviate violent behaviour through sports, cultural activities, and artistic pursuits.
Avoid direct opposition to the ideology, but instil doubt by highlighting that convictions are not entirely wrong, acknowledging positive intentions such as helping women and children, while also acknowledging the negative aspects, such as needless and indiscriminate violence.
Focus on raising awareness of grooming mechanisms. When individuals become aware of being manipulated, they tend to lose trust in the groomer and begin questioning their commitment to the ideology.
The objective of these therapy approaches is to help individuals understand that violence, like anger, is ultimately a behaviour that can be managed in a socially acceptable manner.
Guillaume Monod is a psychiatrist, pedopsychiatrist and holds a PhD in philosophy. After working for twelve years with juvenile offenders, his research focuses on mental health, violent crime, radicalisation, and rehabilitation of former offenders.