17 January 2020

MHE’s reaction to the association of mental health and terrorism on the EU website

Recently, articles associating terrorism and mental health problems have appeared on the EU Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN) portal. RAN is an EU-wide umbrella network of practitioners and local actors involved in countering violent radicalisation. Set up by the European Commission, it consists of working groups that exchange experiences, knowledge and good practices. One of RAN’s working groups, the Health and Social Care Working Group (H&SC), seeks to raise awareness within the health and social care sector to prevent violent extremism and to promote an effective network of health and social care practitioners across Member States. The key challenge of the H&SC is ‘to interpret signs of radicalisation and help those individuals who might be at risk of being radicalised’.


The recent articles contain policy proposals, recommendations and practical guidelines for practitioners. They are entitled:

Members of Mental Health Europe (MHE) have expressed considerable concern about the narrative linking mental health and terrorism, and that the articles appear to have the backing of the EU. This reaction explains their concerns and the grounds on which MHE argues that such topics should be approached with extreme caution and that the EU should issue a disclaimer dissociating itself from these articles.

Lack of evidence of a link between psychopathology and acts of terrorism


The evidence for saying that there is an association between terrorism and mental health problems is extremely contentious. Even throughout the publications it is acknowledged that ‘academic research on the prevalence of mental health disorders among terrorists has failed to produce clear evidence supporting this hypothesis. In fact, studies conducted since 2012 seem to repeatedly reach the conclusion that there is no clear connection between mental health disorders and terrorism’. The studies instead rely on the evidence acquired by ‘practitioners with “real life” experience of patients with diagnosed disorders’ which is unfortunately not publishable for reasons of confidentiality.


It is important to recall that despite societal misconceptions, evidence shows that people with mental health problems are not more likely to be violent than other people; in fact they are more likely to be victims of violence. A recent article published in the New York Times citing research on the links between and mass shootings by lone actors stated that ‘People who blame mass shootings on “the mentally ill” are usually reasoning backward from the act itself: the person just shot 20 unarmed strangers, so he must be “crazy”. In fact, scientists find that only a small fraction of people with persistent mental distress are more likely than average to commit violent acts: patients with paranoid schizophrenia, which is characterized by delusional thinking and often so-called command hallucinations — frightening voices identifying threats where none exist. People living in this kind of misery are far more likely to be the victims of violence than perpetrators.’


Who identifies as having a mental health problem


Throughout the publications, persons at risk of radicalisation are persons with ‘diagnosed mental disorders’ but also with ‘conditions that represent areas of potential vulnerability despite not warranting diagnoses (i.e. subclinical cases)’. This implies that also persons who look as though they might develop a mental health problem are at risk, covering at the very least vast swathes of the general population.


MHE advocates for a less narrow and one size fits all view of mental distress: we are all social beings and our mental health relies on the relationships and the communities in which we live. The role of social and environmental determinants is key in understanding mental health problems. Although the last publication mentions that ‘Wherever (mental illness) has some relevance, it may not be causal, and if it is partly causal, it is likely to interact with a range of political, social, environmental, situational and biological factors at any given time’, the publication then elaborates on how practitioners should ‘unpack the complex impact of mental illness and test hypotheses on its possible role in an individual’s extremism vulnerability and risk’.


What are the consequences of this disregard of evidence? 


From the very beginning, these publications contain various caveats about the dangers of stigmatising whole sectors of population with mental vulnerabilities. However, by shortcutting evidence, authors legitimise stereotyping and discrimination against vulnerable people. And this is not without consequences. Such stereotyping should ring alarm bells with policy makers considering what to make of the policy proposals, recommendations and guidelines.


As RAN was set up by the European Commission, there is a risk for the EU to be seen as contributing . No one doubts the challenges faced by people with these difficulties, nor the need for society to protect them from the very real dangers of exploitation, abuse, robbery and violence which many face on a daily basis. What they are not, however, except in extraordinarily rare circumstances, is a danger to the public from committing acts of violence extremism. We recommend that the EU dissociate itself from the views expounded by RAN in these papers.



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