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Queen Mary study finds that depression and social isolation are the greatest risk factors for radicalisation

“We must stop waiting for terrorism to happen before acting,” says leading academic

Queen Mary recently led a pioneering study into the members of the Muslim community who are most likely to become radicalised. The study found that those with depression and who are socially isolated are most vulnerable, and, contrary to popular opinion, that those who are most resistant to radicalisation are migrants who were not born in the UK, have poor physical health and a large social network including friends and family. Findings revealed that those living in residential areas with poor trust in the community, low feelings of safety and low satisfaction were, too, more critical of terrorist activity, and therefore more resistant to radicalisation. These results are unique for countries like the UK, with high income levels and relatively little conflict, but where radicalisation is becoming increasingly common. The threat of radicalisation is creeping into national headlines more and more frequently, along with stories of young people travelling to conflict zones, such as Syria and Iraq, to engage in violent, radical activity and terrorism.

The study involved developing a new way to measure the risk of radicalisation. Risk estimates were based on participant responses to questions about their sympathies or criticism of 16 different terrorist attacks, including the use of suicide bombings to fight injustice. Those who showed the most sympathy were deemed to be at highest risk, while those who were most critical of these actions were considered resistant to radicalisation. Participants included over 600 male and female participants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and others of Muslim heritage, all aged between 18 and 45 who were also asked for their views on social capital, religion, general health politics, and whether they felt discriminated against.

So why is depression the strongest factor in affecting the likelihood of becoming radicalised? Depression is a mental illness and can cause feelings of hopelessness and despair, causing the sufferer to have a more negative outlook on both their lives and communities. And, people who suffer depression are more likely to be socially isolated. This is because social connections provide support networks that help to guard against mental illness. Without these networks depression is more likely to occur, and the sufferer is less likely to realise it, or seek help. According to Kamaldeep Bhui, Lead Author and Professor of Cultural Psychiatry & Epidemiology at QMUL, “Pin-pointing who is at risk of radicalisation is extremely difficult but this research is taking us one step closer to developing markers. The relationship between radicalisation and mental health is complex but we now know depression, alongside poor social networks and isolation, does play a role in vulnerability to radicalisation.”

So what can be done to prevent radicalisation? For Bhui, part of the problem is that there is a lack of action to prevent the radicalisation of our citizens. “As a nation, we spend a great deal of time, effort and money on counter-terrorism – but virtually no attention is given to preventing radicalisation before it has a chance to take hold. We must change this approach and stop waiting for terrorism to happen before acting.”

“We believe strongly in a public health approach, where those at risk of radicalisation are identified and helped, rather than focussing solely on rare and unpredictable terrorist events after they’ve happened. We must carry out further research on the role of depression in creating sympathies towards terrorism so we can begin to develop robust public health interventions. We must also find ways of engaging those most at risk of radicalisation and help them establish a positive role in society.”

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