The Link Between Depression and Terrorism

A new study from the United Kingdom finds a connection between depression and radicalization.
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(Photo: bhavnasayana/Flickr)

(Photo: bhavnasayana/Flickr)

An intriguing detail made its way into the middle of an Associated Press story this summer about a young Canadian man who converted to Islam, became radicalized, and ultimately died fighting in Syria. According to the piece, the youth, Damian Clairmont, "found religion at 17 after battling depression."

He was just one person, of course, but newly published research finds there may indeed be a link between depression and radicalization. It suggests that, in searching for ways to deter young Western Muslims from the path of jihad, officials may be overlooking an important mental-health component.

"Our study shows that there are modifiable risk and protective factors for the earliest stage on the pathway to violent protest," writes a research team led by Kamaldeep Bhui of the Wolfson Institute of Preventative Medicine at Queen Mary University of London. Their study is published in the online journal PLoS One.

The researchers found that "depressive symptoms independent of psychosocial adversity were associated with sympathies towards violent protests and terrorism."

The researchers surveyed 608 U.K. residents, all "men and women of Pakistani or Bangladeshi origin, of Muslim heritage, and aged 18-45." They chose subjects from two different locations: Bradford, where Muslims tend to live in "relatively isolated areas characterized by poverty and isolation," and East London, which features greater cultural diversity and more employment opportunities.

To measure their level of radicalization, participants were asked to express their level of support for 16 acts of protest, rating each from "completely condemn" to "completely sympathize." The actions ranged from peaceful protests to suicide bombings.

The British Muslims also responded to questions regarding their political engagement, perceived discrimination, and the importance of religion in their lives. Separate questionnaires measured their levels of anxiety and depression.

The researchers found that "depressive symptoms independent of psychosocial adversity"—that is, symptoms above and beyond what one would expect from someone living a difficult life marked by poverty and a lack of opportunity—"were associated with sympathies towards violent protests and terrorism."

While noting that their study cannot prove causality, Bhui and his colleagues conclude that "depressive symptoms meeting a screening threshold for mild depressive illness" appear to be risk factors for radicalization. They point out that this same correlation was previously found in "small studies of convicted terrorists, and of teenagers in Palestine."

Isolation appears to be another risk factor. "We found that the group showing the strongest condemnation (of violent acts) appears to have more social contacts," the researchers write. "Social networks promote resistance (to radicalization) by offering a range of cultural identities and opportunities, and this may itself be protective."

While these findings are both complex and preliminary, they provide a strong argument for approaching the problem of radicalization, at least in part, as a mental health issue.

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