Key findings

► Traumatic experiences can be linked to violent extremism. Adverse childhood experiences (e.g., child maltreatment) and moral injury (e.g., behaviours that violate values and morals, including betrayal from leadership) are two types of traumatic experiences that appear to be particularly relevant to violent extremism and warrant further study.

► Social and economic factors can strengthen or weaken the links between mental health, trauma, radicalisation, and violent extremism. Factors such as community level social cohesion, access to resources and a sense of agency can act as preventative measures. However, the lure of a sense of belonging to overcome feelings associated with trauma and alienation can also be a risk for joining violent extremist groups.

► The exact relationship between mental health and how it possibly contributes to radicalisation is not yet clear. Currently, most studies are small, cross-sectional and retrospective, meaning that data on the outcome (radicalisation) and exposures (trauma) are collected at the same time. From such studies we cannot conclude if mental health issues precede radicalisation or vice versa. In addition, the types of mental health examined vary widely between studies, as does the nature of the studies themselves. Replication efforts are uncommon; therefore, the robustness of findings is presently not known.

► Sophisticated longitudinal research in FCAS is feasible. With careful planning, it is possible to overcome and/or mitigate the particular challenges of conducting such research in conflict environments and with displaced populations.

Policy implications

Joining a violent extremist group is an individualised, complex process with many points of entry. It would be virtually impossible to generate a set of risk factors that could identify all at-risk individuals in unity. Trauma and mental health will undoubtedly be more important for certain individuals than others. Yet, at the same time, very little is known about the functional relevance of mental health and trauma as vulnerabilities for radicalisation and violent extremism. To improve understanding and help policy and programmes more effectively target the types and timing of mental health problems and traumatic experiences that increase vulnerability for radicalisation, the following recommendations apply:

► Large-scale longitudinal studies in FCAS and LMIC that allow for examination of the complex interrelationships of trauma and mental health before radicalisation and under different social and economic conditions are vital and timely.

► Investment should also be made in experimental research designs: demonstrating that an intervention imbedded in an longitudinal research design modifies a trajectory of violent extremism through reducing mental health problems is a particularly convincing test of causation. Recommendations regarding feasibility of such research designs in FCAS/LMIC are made in the last section of this brief.

This policy brief was originally published on the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation’s website.