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Prevent should not treat terrorism as a ‘mental illness’

William Shawcross is leading the independent review into Prevent. Credit: Getty.

February 7, 2023 - 2:36pm

The government’s much delayed independent review of Prevent, led by William Shawcross, will be published tomorrow, and is expected to find that officials have been too focused on addressing the “personal vulnerabilities” of extremists, treating terrorism as if it were akin to a mental illness. As the draft review details:

Prevent is a crucial pillar of the UK’s counter-terrorism architecture, yet it has increasingly come to be seen as synonymous with safeguarding (i.e. an emphasis on protecting those referred into Prevent from harm and addressing their personal vulnerabilities) […] Prevent too often bestows a status of victimhood on all who come into contact with it.
- Prevent review

This attempt to explain crime as a consequence of “personal vulnerabilities” is by no means confined to terrorism. Just one recent example of this in practice was the Independent Serious Further Offence (ISFO) review of Jordan McSweeney, the man who sexually assaulted and murdered Zara Aleena as she walked home after a night out in London on 22 June 2022. 

McSweeney committed the murder nine days after being released on licence from prison for an earlier offence of robbery, the culmination of a long history of violent offending dating back to 2005. The ISFO review was tasked with making recommendations to the probation service, the state agency responsible for the fact that McSweeney was out on the streets and therefore free to take Aleena’s life. 

Reading parts of this review, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this was a report into the misbehaviour of a primary school student. In a section headed ‘Diverse Needs’, for instance, the review describes McSweeney’s various diagnoses of “Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Personality Disorder (PD) and […] depression”, and the probation service is criticised for paying too little attention to how McSweeney’s ADHD, in particular, “affected his day-to-day cognitive functioning and learning styles, and if there were links with offending behaviour.” 

Bear in mind that, according to one 2018 study, 13.6% of American adolescents aged 12-17 had been diagnosed with ADHD at some point in their lives. This particular diagnosis had proved hugely popular among parents and teachers, given that medicating hyperactive kids (particularly boys) makes these kids easier to discipline. 

But as psychiatrist and blogger Scott Alexander writes, “‘ability to concentrate’ is a normally distributed trait.” Which means that, in practice, applying an ADHD diagnosis means that “we draw a line at some point on the far left of the bell curve and tell the people on the far side that they’ve ‘got’ ‘the disease’ of ‘ADHD’.” 

This is not to say that people diagnosed with ADHD do not genuinely struggle to concentrate, because of course they do. But there is no easy distinction to be drawn between pathological and non-pathological poor concentration, just as there is no easy distinction between sadness and clinical depression, or between a person with a difficult personality and a person with a personality disorder. It all depends on the diagnostic criteria, which in turn depend enormously on cultural context. 

It is clearly true that people with certain behavioural traits are more likely to commit crime, and that it is often possible to describe those traits using medicalised language. For instance, Antisocial Personality Disorder is the most common psychiatric disorder among people who have been incarcerated. Which is hardly surprising, given that the disorder is defined by symptoms including irritability, impulsiveness, deceitfulness, and failure to conform to social norms — in other words, exactly the kind of traits you would expect to find in a person who defies social norms like ‘don’t commit crime’. 

I don’t object to diagnosing criminals — including terrorists — with psychiatric conditions, and then looking for correlations in the data. Plausibly, these diagnoses could be used to predict future offending and thus protect the public. 

But as the independent review into Prevent makes clear, this trend for medicalising criminality is often not used to protect the public, but rather the opposite, encouraging authorities to take pity on violent offenders who are cast as victims. From there, it’s only a short step to suggesting that these pitiable victims ought not to be in prison at all. 

The truth is that there is no good evidence to suggest that a focus on “learning styles” or talking therapies or any other kind of gentle intervention would have prevented Jordan McSweeney’s murder of Zara Aleena, given his very violent history and the fact that worldwide recidivism rates are extraordinarily high, even in countries that put a great deal of effort into rehabilitation. Prisons are the only tool we have which definitely reduce crime, for the simple reason that they physically separate criminals from potential victims. In the end, that’s what the criminal justice system is for.


Louise Perry is a freelance writer and campaigner against sexual violence.

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Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago

I’ve got an inkling that those at the helm of Prevent simply don’t live in an environment where they’d witness the daily macho-aggressive behaviour of the particular ethno-religious groups in our society that are most likely to commit terrorist offences.
If they did, they’d witness not the behaviour of victims, but the behaviour of those who think they’re superior to us, a complex induced from birth and via their upbringing. It manifests itself in the grooming and exploiting of young girls; in driving styles – invariably in expensive high-powered vehicles acquired with finance of “unknown origin” – which includes disregard for the safety of other road users and aggressive overtaking, regardless of road conditions. A red traffic light? Pah! I see this with my own eyes on virtually a daily basis. Victims? I think not. Nor is this view based upon any form of prejudice – simply on observation of behaviour. I wish it were different.
Such observations are likely to be outside the experience of those whose role it is to make Prevent as effective a means as possible in protecting our society. Since even our police forces do their best to ignore such behaviour, especially on the roads until they have to extricate the remains of their latest RTA statistic from a vehicle that’s been smashed into at high speed, it’s likely that Prevent are ignorant of their duty of care to society as a whole too.

Last edited 1 year ago by Steve Murray
Chris W
Chris W
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

As I think you said to me once, your observation is true in almost all parts of our lives. The people who make the rules don’t have to live with those rules.
This means that we don’t have democracy – we have democracy via intermediaries. The latter, whether left or right, don’t represent the majority – which is why so few people vote in elections.

j watson
JW
j watson
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

I concur with your point SM – there is something in the ‘felt’ inadequacy of an individual that draws them to other compensating outlets – whether membership of some secret brethren involved in violence or some other form of compensatory appendage waving – and it is overwhelmingly Men. I’m with you that you need a broad life experience to realise this happens and regardless we have free choice so stop making so many excuses for certain behaviour. I’m with the Author – there will often be some form of psychiatric disfunction in these people too but that cannot lead to the potential victims not having primacy in how we react.
If the reason we’ve got the emphasis in Prevent wrong to date is a belief in the better nature in us all if we just get help then that’s admirable but also cannot distort or reduce our responsibility in how we manage the risk to others.

Chris W
Chris W
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

As I think you said to me once, your observation is true in almost all parts of our lives. The people who make the rules don’t have to live with those rules.
This means that we don’t have democracy – we have democracy via intermediaries. The latter, whether left or right, don’t represent the majority – which is why so few people vote in elections.

j watson
JW
j watson
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

I concur with your point SM – there is something in the ‘felt’ inadequacy of an individual that draws them to other compensating outlets – whether membership of some secret brethren involved in violence or some other form of compensatory appendage waving – and it is overwhelmingly Men. I’m with you that you need a broad life experience to realise this happens and regardless we have free choice so stop making so many excuses for certain behaviour. I’m with the Author – there will often be some form of psychiatric disfunction in these people too but that cannot lead to the potential victims not having primacy in how we react.
If the reason we’ve got the emphasis in Prevent wrong to date is a belief in the better nature in us all if we just get help then that’s admirable but also cannot distort or reduce our responsibility in how we manage the risk to others.

Steve Murray
LL
Steve Murray
1 year ago

I’ve got an inkling that those at the helm of Prevent simply don’t live in an environment where they’d witness the daily macho-aggressive behaviour of the particular ethno-religious groups in our society that are most likely to commit terrorist offences.
If they did, they’d witness not the behaviour of victims, but the behaviour of those who think they’re superior to us, a complex induced from birth and via their upbringing. It manifests itself in the grooming and exploiting of young girls; in driving styles – invariably in expensive high-powered vehicles acquired with finance of “unknown origin” – which includes disregard for the safety of other road users and aggressive overtaking, regardless of road conditions. A red traffic light? Pah! I see this with my own eyes on virtually a daily basis. Victims? I think not. Nor is this view based upon any form of prejudice – simply on observation of behaviour. I wish it were different.
Such observations are likely to be outside the experience of those whose role it is to make Prevent as effective a means as possible in protecting our society. Since even our police forces do their best to ignore such behaviour, especially on the roads until they have to extricate the remains of their latest RTA statistic from a vehicle that’s been smashed into at high speed, it’s likely that Prevent are ignorant of their duty of care to society as a whole too.

Last edited 1 year ago by Steve Murray
Tom Watson
Tom Watson
1 year ago

They’re not the only tool we have that definitely reduces crime. I can think of at least one other, and it cuts recidivism to 0.

Jacqueline Burns
JB
Jacqueline Burns
1 year ago
Reply to  Tom Watson

I am in favour of that one too, Tom! And, as I have often said ‘it may not prevent others but it certainly stops the guilty one committing any further crimes even a parking one’.

Ronnie Karlstetter
RK
Ronnie Karlstetter
1 year ago
Reply to  Tom Watson

Lately, I read of an upcoming bail hearing for casual cop-killers (CA). Used to be automatic death penalty; now, nothing special…and big surprise, now the police force is concerned over a wave of violent attrition. Can’t help thinking there’s incredible sadism in preserving lethal souls, for all concerned – including the perpetrator.

Jacqueline Burns
Jacqueline Burns
1 year ago
Reply to  Tom Watson

I am in favour of that one too, Tom! And, as I have often said ‘it may not prevent others but it certainly stops the guilty one committing any further crimes even a parking one’.

Ronnie Karlstetter
Ronnie Karlstetter
1 year ago
Reply to  Tom Watson

Lately, I read of an upcoming bail hearing for casual cop-killers (CA). Used to be automatic death penalty; now, nothing special…and big surprise, now the police force is concerned over a wave of violent attrition. Can’t help thinking there’s incredible sadism in preserving lethal souls, for all concerned – including the perpetrator.

Tom Watson
TW
Tom Watson
1 year ago

They’re not the only tool we have that definitely reduces crime. I can think of at least one other, and it cuts recidivism to 0.

Rocky Martiano
Rocky Martiano
1 year ago

Amen to that. Why is everyone else expected to understand the difference between good and evil, while violent criminals somehow get an exemption because of their ‘personal vulnerabilities’. I know plenty of vulnerable people who don’t go around committing rape and murder.

Rocky Martiano
Rocky Martiano
1 year ago

Amen to that. Why is everyone else expected to understand the difference between good and evil, while violent criminals somehow get an exemption because of their ‘personal vulnerabilities’. I know plenty of vulnerable people who don’t go around committing rape and murder.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
1 year ago

Well said, Louise.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
1 year ago

Well said, Louise.

Dumetrius
D
Dumetrius
1 year ago

When I was a research fellow at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, fending off Home Office with their obsession for finding some kind of psychiatric profile to identify terrorists or those prone to extremism was a daily struggle.

Dumetrius
D
Dumetrius
1 year ago

When I was a research fellow at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, fending off Home Office with their obsession for finding some kind of psychiatric profile to identify terrorists or those prone to extremism was a daily struggle.

jane baker
jane baker
1 year ago

Assuming that Prevent is mostly focused on belongers to the Muslim form of religion (but I may be wrong as I dont know that much about it) they have to stress that any aberrations in behaviour are due to the perpetrator being mentally ill or it offends the sensibilities of both Muslim adherents and (even more so I expect) their European British upper middle class equality defenders. In the recent past every time a man of the Muslim background,family and community has gone on a violent knife spree it is emphasized that the individual is mentally unhinged,which is true enough,but that is also used to exonerate the religion. The writer Aayan Hirsi Ali asserts that just being Muslim creates mental illness in you at least partly because the effort of trying to observe,I don’t know,10th century lifestyles suitable for arid desert regions in the complex 20th/21st century in another climate and economic zone puts intolerable strain on the pysche. I encounter a lot of Muslim people of all ages etc where I live and they are like everybody else a total mixture of personalities. When my late Mum needed a taxi but was in a wheelchair it was the Muslim taxi drivers who showed most solicitude and care and went the extra mile as they say while Brit drivers couldn’t be bothered to get out and do the conversion thing is moving the seat back.

jane baker
jane baker
1 year ago

Assuming that Prevent is mostly focused on belongers to the Muslim form of religion (but I may be wrong as I dont know that much about it) they have to stress that any aberrations in behaviour are due to the perpetrator being mentally ill or it offends the sensibilities of both Muslim adherents and (even more so I expect) their European British upper middle class equality defenders. In the recent past every time a man of the Muslim background,family and community has gone on a violent knife spree it is emphasized that the individual is mentally unhinged,which is true enough,but that is also used to exonerate the religion. The writer Aayan Hirsi Ali asserts that just being Muslim creates mental illness in you at least partly because the effort of trying to observe,I don’t know,10th century lifestyles suitable for arid desert regions in the complex 20th/21st century in another climate and economic zone puts intolerable strain on the pysche. I encounter a lot of Muslim people of all ages etc where I live and they are like everybody else a total mixture of personalities. When my late Mum needed a taxi but was in a wheelchair it was the Muslim taxi drivers who showed most solicitude and care and went the extra mile as they say while Brit drivers couldn’t be bothered to get out and do the conversion thing is moving the seat back.

William Braden
William Braden
1 year ago

I remember a psychologist years ago suggesting that terrorists could be prevented by better mothering. Many pathologies are not individual (“mental illness”) but social, like the crowd following the preacher who says the world will end tomorrow. The American of Christian background who converts to Islam and joins ISIS probably has some individual issues and is a distress to his mother. The Muslim local to ISIS’s territory who joins them is more likely to be responding to social factors,and his mother, though worried about his safety, is likely to be proud of him.
With criminals (changing the subject from terrorism, which was probably a misleading headline), it’s the old free will problem. The criminal may have several conditions working against him, over which he has little or no control. ADHD, poor upbringing, childhood abuse, poverty — potentially a long list. We can try to modify some of these preventatively, by improving education and the economy, but for today’s criminal, we’re too late. What we can modify is the expectation of being caught and imprisoned, of fair and swift justice.
l say this not out of hatred for the McSweeneys. Indeed, I am sad for him, that he turned out badly. He himself may feel shame and sadness that he killed the girl (not that it does her any good now). I would lock him into prison, sad that this bad option is nevertheless the best one for him.

William Braden
William Braden
1 year ago

I remember a psychologist years ago suggesting that terrorists could be prevented by better mothering. Many pathologies are not individual (“mental illness”) but social, like the crowd following the preacher who says the world will end tomorrow. The American of Christian background who converts to Islam and joins ISIS probably has some individual issues and is a distress to his mother. The Muslim local to ISIS’s territory who joins them is more likely to be responding to social factors,and his mother, though worried about his safety, is likely to be proud of him.
With criminals (changing the subject from terrorism, which was probably a misleading headline), it’s the old free will problem. The criminal may have several conditions working against him, over which he has little or no control. ADHD, poor upbringing, childhood abuse, poverty — potentially a long list. We can try to modify some of these preventatively, by improving education and the economy, but for today’s criminal, we’re too late. What we can modify is the expectation of being caught and imprisoned, of fair and swift justice.
l say this not out of hatred for the McSweeneys. Indeed, I am sad for him, that he turned out badly. He himself may feel shame and sadness that he killed the girl (not that it does her any good now). I would lock him into prison, sad that this bad option is nevertheless the best one for him.

Edward De Beukelaer
EB
Edward De Beukelaer
1 year ago

Always the same problem: since medicine is so preoccupied with making diagnoses in order to prescribe a treatment (prepared by the industry who has created a health care model based on an investment and return logic) forgets that we should concentrate on making people healthy rather be principally be preoccupied with illness.
because most in the medical world are prisoners of this thinking: diagnosis-treatment , they try to put everything in this type of box fitting thinking.. note that putting things in boxes takes them away from reality (Ian Mc Gilchrist: The Matter With Things)
There is here confusion between: medicine (its modern reductionist version)- cultural differences (cultural clashes), and the fact that there will always be people from one side of a spectrum to another side, that we see prison solely as punishment and not what it really should be a way to keep society as safe as possible.
The modern view of health is not the absence if illness but the capability to deal with the things of life (emotional, physical, infectious, pollutions, etc)…. the same goes for society…

Edward De Beukelaer
EB
Edward De Beukelaer
1 year ago

Always the same problem: since medicine is so preoccupied with making diagnoses in order to prescribe a treatment (prepared by the industry who has created a health care model based on an investment and return logic) forgets that we should concentrate on making people healthy rather be principally be preoccupied with illness.
because most in the medical world are prisoners of this thinking: diagnosis-treatment , they try to put everything in this type of box fitting thinking.. note that putting things in boxes takes them away from reality (Ian Mc Gilchrist: The Matter With Things)
There is here confusion between: medicine (its modern reductionist version)- cultural differences (cultural clashes), and the fact that there will always be people from one side of a spectrum to another side, that we see prison solely as punishment and not what it really should be a way to keep society as safe as possible.
The modern view of health is not the absence if illness but the capability to deal with the things of life (emotional, physical, infectious, pollutions, etc)…. the same goes for society…