Tuesday 21 May 2019

"Depression, dysthymia and symptoms of anxiety and post-traumatic stress are associated with extremist sympathies"

It's a particularly poignant time to be writing this post about the findings reported by Kamaldeep Bhui and colleagues [1] on the day that news broke about events in New Zealand (see here). An all-too-familiar story of hate leading to bloodshed helped along by access to weapons; communities are left scared, confused and broken following such acts of depravity.

Although snippets of information about the events leading to the New Zealand murders are still at the time of writing coming to light, the incident is being treated as a terrorist attack. News agencies have converged on the suspect; the life behind such crimes and any possible motives. Discussions will eventually lead to inevitable questions about what motivates someone to kill innocent people under such circumstances and on such a horrific scale, and could such an act have been foreseen and potentially avoided.

The Bhui findings hopefully represent a part of that inquiry as per their focus on trying to "better understand the drivers of radicalisation and extremist attitudes more generally, and the links with symptoms of psychological and mental illnesses." I say the Bhui findings might help, but also reiterate that at the time of writing, we don't know for example, whether 'psychological and mental illness' was part-and-parcel of the motivation for the New Zealand attacks.

The basics: a study based here in Blighty, researchers recruited over 600 adults (18-45 years of age) and asked various questions and for various bits of information. They asked for information about psychiatric variables such as depression (depressive symptoms), dysthymia "(i.e. persistent mild depression, or depressive personality)", personality disorder symptoms and symptoms related to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). We're also told that: "Autism symptoms were measured by using a total score on the Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ-10), which is reported as having high discriminant validity for those with and without a clinical diagnosis." I'll come back to that sentence shortly. Alongside, participants completed something called the "'SyfoR': Sympathies for Radicalisation" tool. As the name suggests, the instrument is used to gauge sympathies to "(a) committing minor crime, (b) committing violence… in political protests, (c) organising radical terrorist groups, (d) threatening to commit terrorist actions, (e) committing terrorist actions… as a form of political protest, (f) using bombs and (g) using suicide bombs to fight against injustices." Respondents are categorised as sympathisers, condemners or neutral. It appears that Bhui has played an integral part in developing the SyfoR tool.

Results: bearing in mind this was a study of extremist beliefs, not extremist actions, and mental health, researchers observed that: "SVPT [sympathies for violent protest and terrorism] were more common in those with major depression with dysthymia..., symptoms of anxiety... or post-traumatic stress." Perhaps just as important, we are told that: "Autism and personality disorder scores were not associated with SVPT" which kinda ties in with a judgement recently (see here). I say that bearing in mind that the AQ might be picking up quite a bit more than just a possible 'clinical diagnosis' of autism (see here) and reference to the growing research literature on how vulnerability is something to consider when autism is mentioned in several contexts (see here and see here). What else? Well, age played a factor (younger people were more likely to display SVPT) and SVPT was more commonly noted in those who drank, smoked and reported having a previous criminal conviction. Also of important note was the finding that: "SVPT were shown by 15.1% of the White British and 8.1% of the Pakistani groups" taking into account that half of participants were White British and half were of Pakistani heritage.

I don't want to get too carried away with sweeping generalisations stemming from the Bhui results but one can't help but wonder about the potential implications. As the authors opine: "in the absence of links with extremist groups or histories of extremist offending, the presence of mental illnesses may add risk" when it comes to SVPT. Onward: "A more general approach to improving population mental health alongside prevention in specific populations such as those experiencing post-traumatic symptoms and younger people may be helpful." I say all that being very careful not to stigmatise any individual or any group of people.

But there are concerns too. Concerns that for example, with the data suggesting that more and more young people are suffering with mental ill-health (see here) so this *might* potentially tie into some of the Bhui conclusions minus any sweeping generalisations...


[1] Bhui K. et al. Extremism and common mental illness: cross-sectional community survey of White British and Pakistani men and women living in England. Br J Psychiatry. 2019 Mar 15:1-8.


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