Terrorism and Mental Health

6th September 2018

Last night I participated in a late night discussion programme on the BBC Asian Network on the subject of the relationship between terrorism and mental health. I made most of the points I intended to, I think. But one of the pleasures of having access to a journal is being able to set out my argument, after the event, in a considered manner.

We have to be careful about treating terrorism as exclusively or primarily a mental health issue for two reasons. First, we should not forget that repressive states have historically characterised political and religious dissent as mental illness. The USSR in particular abused psychiatry in order to deter, punish and incarcerate political dissidents. More recently, it has been reported that similar techniques are currently being used against the Uighur and other Muslim minorities in China

The second reason that we should pause before pathologising terrorism is this. Whenever an arguably politically motivated attack takes place – be it jihadist, far Right or far Left – some will immediately dismiss the possibility that the motivation is ideological and will seek to shift the focus to mental health or other personal issues. Sometimes that is because a commentator may simply not understand, or believe, that an individual could be so wedded to an ideology that they would seek to slaughter strangers.

Alternatively, a commentator may understand the murderous consequences of a particular ideology well, but wish nevertheless to protect that belief system from criticism. Mental health concerns are effectively  pressed into service as an alibi.

That said, it is certainly the case that some people who have committed terrorist offences suffer from mental health problems. Michael Adebowale, one of the murderers of Lee Rigby is now being held in Broadmoor mental hospital. Consider also Nicky Reilly, a convert who was not mentally ill, but whose learning disabilities made him easy prey for unscrupulous and manipulative men who persuaded him to set a nail bomb off in a restaurant in Exeter. He was severely injured when the bomb exploded prematurely, and later died in prison.

In any criminal trial, the impact of the defendant’s mental health will be fully considered by the court. The defendant will be assessed by psychiatrists, and the court will hear arguments directed to the defendant’s fitness to plead, and their ability to understand and participate in the proceedings. The issue is taken extremely seriously and properly investigated.

The news cycle and our natural desire to understand a terrorist’s motivation in the aftermath of a terrible crime encourage a rush to judgement. However, whenever hear somebody playing armchair psychiatrist in the immediate wake of a bombing, stabbing or shooting, pause a little. Wait for the full evidence to come out.

Listen to the segment of the show, here: