Violent Extremism and Public Health

Would it be helpful if more health professionals were involved in countering violent extremism? Yes. But it depends on the degree of involvement.

For one, there are already a number of psychologists and experts with qualifications in health support active in the field of preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE), besides graduates in security and social work. They likely have a marked amount of experience with mental disorders, or so they should.

Secondly, independent psychiatrists or consultants ought at best to be involved to a similar degree as violent extremism can in part, or – depending on the individual offender – to a large part, be linked to mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia and personality disorders. The more, the merrier does not apply, in this case, since some forms of mental challenges cannot be directly linked to terrorism in an evidence-based manner. Let us name depression and autism, for instance.

A paradigm change from distancing work and integration to medical treatment would revolutionize P/CVE – but would that be desirable? At this point, this seems not to be the case. Terrorism can be caused by a multitude of factors, from wrongly attributed religious causes and misinterpretation to frustration regarding an offender’s economic situation.

Covering the cost of treatment for vulnerable persons would exceed what society and government has been shouldering for many years. Finally, in most western countries, there is already a net of safeguarding in place that guarantees that mentally ill are considerably more unlikely to commit acts of violence than without treatment – be it those confined to health institutions or when it comes to those who, themselves, seek ambulant treatment.

In sum, mental health experts can complement P/CVE. Moreover, the sphere of mental health remains under-researched. Involving more health experts might thus lead to a better understanding of the causes of terrorism and ways to limit, as much as possible, acts of violence. But wholly changing the structure of professional work with radicalized individuals, extremist offenders in prisons and in health facilities, as well as former offenders, appears not to meet the goal of pursuing a whole-of-society approach against the risk of violent extremism.

Thorsten Koch, MA, PgDip
25 May 2023

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