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Political Dictionary of the History of Health

Radicalisation and psychiatry

The lumping together of mental illness and radicalisation leads to negating the latter’s implication in individual and collective history


On 22 August 2017, a few days after the terror attacks in Catalonia, Gérard Collomb the then minister of the Interior, asserted that “some feeble-minded types [..] are going to mimetically act out their feelings, which is what we have to guard and work against”. He supported this notion with the assertion that “close to one third of the persons reported for radicalisation suffer from psychological troubles” and accordingly called for the “mobilisation of the psychiatric establishments and psychiatrists” through the implementation of protocols for individuals presenting with “Islamic radicalisation fixations”.


The first thing to note is the semantic shift, which takes us from “terrorist” to “radicalised”. Such an evolution leads to a broadening of the threat and consequently of the targets of public action under the heading of counterterrorism. The ambiguity and laxity present in the notion of radicalisation imply that this potential danger may have many faces, leaving the authority with the task of spotting and unmasking them.


The figure put forward by the minister – one third of radicalised individuals presenting with psychological troubles – seems surprising. It may refer to the study conducted by Corner and Gill (2015) which showed that around one third of those the authors named “lone actors” suffered from psychiatric pathologies. But that same study noted that most of them were not linked to a shared ideology such as Islamic fundamentalism or the far-right. If we compare the prevalence of psychiatric pathologies among terrorists with that in the population at large, we will indeed note a higher occurrence of psychotic or autistic troubles among lone actors. However, these factors must be compared with other risk factors such as social isolation which figures in 52.9 of the cases in that same category. Accordingly, mental illness as a single driver of violent enactment applies only in 4 to 5 % of cases.


In a study of terror-related political discourse, Guibet-Lafaye (2016) note that, as from 2012, references to radicalisation tend to ascribe the social and political processes at work to subjectivity thus marking out the radicalised individual as deviant. Thinking that “extremist” causes can only convince “fragile” or “desperate” (de Villepin quoted by Guibet-Lafaye, 2016) types boils down to asserting that it is not possible, when sound of mind, to adhere to such ideologies. This «hypersubjectivization » (Guibet-Lafaye, 2016) tends to give an explanatory value to some psychological dimensions (frustration, manipulation, madness) in preference to (injustice-inspired or ideology-driven) others. Such interpretative paradigms are overprized in the government’s discourse where references to frustration, loss of boundaries or the attraction of violence recur. These descriptions and attempted interpretations represent as many exercises in subjectivization of personal stances – and to discredit individual commitments.


To this day, as a result, the notion of a necessary understanding of individuals and groups involved in politically motivated violence remains counter intuitive. Suffice it to recall Prime Minister Manuel Valls’ declaration in the aftermath of the 13 November 2015 attacks: “to explain such actions is already to somehow seek excuses.”


And yet, the analyses of totalitarian movements have shown that they possess an internal coherence. Taking this sideways look, we may think radicalisation not just as a risk to society but also as an attempt at a private and shared answer to suffering. Thus, the radicalised person dreams of themselves as fused in a fraternal and heroic group fighting against oppression for a better world where they see themselves finally finding their own place. Actually, choosing to affiliate to new in-groups need no longer be communal but can be driven by identification with the grand schemes of radicality’s freshest versions. By refusing any sense-making, security policies risk becoming as many counteractions where violence answers violence, leading in the end to the confirmation on each side that violence is in the other.


Follow the reading : Emergency medicine- Excess mortality in psychiatric hospitals

Cyprien Anrochte - Infirmier - CHS Daumezon Nantes


E. Corner et A. Gill, "A False dichotomy? Mental illness and lone-actor terrorism", Law and Human Behavior, 2015, 39(1), 23-34.

C. Guibet-Lafaye, "Interprétations politiques de la causalité terroriste", Metabasis, 2016, p. 26–54.

To quote this paper : Cyprien Anrochte, "Radicalisation and psychiatriy" in Hervé Guillemain (ed.), DicoPolHiS, Le Mans université, 2021.

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