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What Is the Role of Mental Health in Extremism?

What someone believes is affected by a combination of factors such as personal experiences, upbringing, education, cultural and societal norms, religious or spiritual beliefs, and exposure to different ideas. These all shape an individual's worldview and contribute to the formation of their beliefs. Belief structures differ significantly between individuals and can evolve and change completely through personal experiences and exposure to new knowledge.

Sometimes belief structures lead to what many would think of as extreme views and extreme actions. The question here is the role, if any, that mental illness plays in extremism.

One definition of violent extremism is “violence committed by an individual and/or group in support of a specific political or religious ideology, and this term is often used interchangeably with terrorism,” according to research published in the Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency.

The same 2016 report found that higher exposure to trauma leads to a greater likelihood of developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is associated with increased anger and hostility and greater urge for revenge versus reconciliation, behaviors that increase the likelihood of supporting violent extremism. This greater exposure to trauma, as well as weaker social bonds, makes an individual more likely to engage in violent extremism.

Additionally, a number of other studies support that the number of risk factors (such as abuse or neglect) experienced during childhood, rather than any particular combination, is associated with childhood misconduct and potential later violence.

A report in the British Journal of Psychiatry in 2020, Extremism and common mental illness: cross-sectional community survey of White British and Pakistani men and women living in England, concluded that “depression, dysthymia, and symptoms of anxiety and post-traumatic stress are associated with extremist sympathies.”

In the article “Trauma Informed Care and Violent Extremism Prevention,” published by the Centre for Research and Evidence on Security Threats (CREST), researchers stated, “Recruiters of terrorist organisations or others purveying hate are skilled at identifying those vulnerable due to traumatic or adverse experiences and offering them a means of empowerment through joining the movement and taking violent action. In far too many cases, recruiters are the only ones who offer such support, not parents, teachers, or healthcare workers.”

The ability of bad actors to find and target those who are vulnerable to radicalization is, unsurprisingly, increased online. In 2022 in the UK, HM Probation Service produced a report, The Internet and radicalisation pathways: technological advances, relevance of mental health and role of attackers, that analyzed the role of the Internet in the radicalization of 437 convicted extremists in England and Wales. The researchers found that radicalization now takes place primarily online (with the caveat that the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and associated lockdowns may have skewed the data). One-third of the sample were reported as having mental health issues, neurodivergence, or personality disorders and difficulties.

Regardless of the primary method of radicalization (online, hybrid, or face to face), the most susceptible people were those on the autism spectrum, followed by people with depression, personality disorders, anxiety, schizophrenia/psychosis, or PTSD. For every type of disorder, “online” was the most frequent (or equally most frequent) method of radicalisation. It is worth noting that “for 45 (31 percent) of the 143 individuals, comorbidity was relevant with more than one type of mental health issue/neurodivergence/personality disorder identified,” the report found, and the convergence of multiple types of mental health conditions puts those individuals at even greater risk for radicalization.

Good security management starts with a risk assessment, and while mental ill health is a risk factor, it is one that can be mitigated, especially with assistance from colleagues, friends, and family members. The article from CREST also stated, “For those who have started to get involved with violent extremism but not yet committed a crime, trauma-informed approaches can be one component of wraparound services utilized to offer an exit ramp.”

Supporting people suffering from mental illness is the right thing to do, both humanely and in view of workplace issues such as productivity and working days lost through anxiety, depression, and other conditions. Moreover, the demonstrable return on investment from offering support is compelling.

In a 2020 report titled It Pays to Support Mental Health at Work, Deloitte and the United Kingdom charity Mind found that poor mental health costs UK employers up to £45 billion (USD $56 billion) each year, but “for every £1 spent on mental health interventions, employers get £5 back.” Similarly, the National Safety Council (NSC) in the United States produced a calculator to show the return for investing in mental health. Its 2021 report showed a $4 return for every $1 spent. “When employees receive effective treatment for mental distress, organizations realize reduced total medical costs, increased productivity, lower absenteeism, and decreased disability costs,” the NSC wrote.

Lastly, consider that supporting those suffering from mental ill health is also good for security. Poor mental health leads to absenteeism, presenteeism, and an increased rate of staff turnover. It also puts pressure on those having to cover empty positions and may increase use of temporary workers who might not have the same level of skills and training. All these factors make it harder to provide good security.

We can start that process by training and education, breaking down stigma, and creating a safe place for people to talk openly about issues affecting them. In that way, we can mitigate the risks and offer individuals the support they need.


Mike Hurst, CPP, CPOI, has enjoyed a 30-plus year career in security as an executive-level recruiter, consultant, and volunteer leader. He has served as an ASIS International leader at chapter, regional, and community levels.