Finally some data about the mental health-terrorism link

If there is one thing that frustrates me most it is the tendency of a lot of people, well-intentioned or otherwise, to make sweeping statements about terrorism – what it is, what causes it, etc.- without doing the minimum amount of real research to back up their claims.  I am sure you have read much of the same material I have: terrorism is caused by alienation; terrorism is linked to discrimination; terrorism thrives in poor socio-economic areas; and so on and so forth.  Empty phrases much of the time.

Another common trope is that terrorists usually suffer from mental illness or, if not a disease per se, at least some kind of mental condition.  This seems to be something that many are more than happy to accept, whether or not there is any empirical data to support the belief. I surmise that this is due to a kind of protective mechanism: we cannot fathom how what we see as a ‘normal’ human being could become a suicide bomber so we ascribe abnormality, in the form of mental illness, to the perpetrator.  That way we can compartmentalise the culprit and separate whatever he (or she) believed in from an ideological angle from what we ‘normal’ ones do.  Phew!  Thank God I am not like that!

The problem is that we simply do not have a tonne of information to underscore this conviction.  Part of the challenge is that it is really tough (!) to interview or do psychiatric testing on successful suicide attackers and even those that do survive their acts are often imprisoned and that too is an obstacle.  In other cases the literature is inconsistent.

I want to focus today on one paper recently published in The Journal of Personality Assessment by a friend of mine, Paul Gill of University College London and his former graduate student Emily Corner, now a lecturer  in Canberra (as well as two people I don’t know – Ronald Schouten and Frank Farnham).  But before I do that, allow me a rant.  I find it unconscionable that journals and reviews charge exorbitant fees to read articles submitted by scholars.  These costs, I am sure, make it almost inevitable that most people will never be aware of this research.  This is doubly unacceptable since many of these researchers receive public funding.  I for one would like to see more general, cost-free access.  There, rant over. Back to the paper.

Gill et al try to put what we know and what we don’t about the link between mental illness and what they call ‘grievance-fueled targeted violence’ (of which terrorism is a subset).  Here is the abstract:

This article aims to move away from intuitive appeals that link mental disorder with violence such as terrorism, mass murder, and other targeted violence. The article synthesizes the existing evidence base regarding the relationship between mental disorders and personality traits and (a) attitudinal affinities with violent causes, and (b) a number of violent behaviors (including mass murder and terrorism). The evidence base is mixed and the research focus changed across time: from simple and unempirical assertions of causation to an almost complete rejection of their presence to a finer grained and disaggregated understanding. Empirical research examining mental disorder in crime and violence highlights that the commission of such events is a complex synthesis of psychopathology, personal circumstance, and environment. The article concludes with several suggestions regarding future research and practice.

My takeaway from the article is something I have been saying for decades: terrorism is complicated.  Here is another excerpt from the paper that says much the same thing: ” The presence of symptoms of a mental disorder will only ever be one (NB emphasis added) of many factors in an individual’s movement toward radicalization, planning a terrorist attack, and following an attack. In many cases, psychological problems might be present, but completely unrelated.”  And, the last paragraph:

Finally, despite the nascent empirical research showing the prevalence of mental disorders within terrorist samples, it is worth noting that such individuals typically remain a minority in most samples. This attests to the limitations of expecting mental health professionals to identify individuals at risk of carrying out mass violence. In many cases, psychologists might have little to contribute in those circumstances in which potential perpetrators display no psychological disturbance and continue to act rationally.

I want to commended Gill et al for this work (and not just because Paul is a friend).  This is an important contribution to a field that has been to date poorly served and begins to put real numbers to assertions.  I have always felt that the connection between mental illness and terrorism was not as many were asserting.  Then again, my views are based on what I saw as an analyst at CSIS but I have precisely zero background in psychology or psychiatry.  This is why I am excited that this kind of analysis is – finally! – being carried out.  There are still challenges, however, mostly tied to data collection (all the stuff I had access to at CSIS remains out of the public sphere for example).  Nevertheless I remain optimistic that we will now begin to see work along these lines.  I remain skeptical that there is a causational relationship between psychopathy and terrorism but I am open to changing my mind.

To Gill et al and others – please keep doing this.  It is much appreciated!

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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