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'Terrorism is not about mental illness,' says French psychiatrist

Eitan Abramovich, AFP archives | Nearly a third of people reported for radicalisation have psychological issues, according to France's interior minister, Gérard Collomb.

Text by Stéphanie TROUILLARD

Latest update : 2017-08-24

French Interior Minister Gérard Collomb has said that a third of terrorists have "psychological issues". But some psychiatrists are quick to point out that there is no clear link between mental illness and terrorism.

Addressing the threat France faces from terrorism, Collomb said several times this month that a third of the suspects reported for radicalisation to the Terrorism Prevention and Radicalisation Reporting File (FSPRT) suffer from "psychological issues”. Since its creation in 2015, around 18,550 people have been listed in the FSPRT, according to an article published in French daily Le Figaro.

Collomb has declared that he wants to mobilise psychiatric hospitals and psychiatrists “to identify the kind of personalities that could potentially take [radical] action”. He cited the example of a man who killed one person and injured another in Marseille on Monday after crashing his van into people waiting at bus shelters. “He came out of a psychiatric clinic,” Collomb told TV news channel BFMTV. “He’d previously been in prison and he killed someone. We need to consider this kind of case."

Several specialists have reacted to Collomb’s statements and have criticised the idea of using psychiatric examinations to try to identify potential terrorists. In an interview with FRANCE 24, Fethi Benslama, a psychoanalyst and a professor at Paris Diderot University, said that a history of mental health problems does not explain why someone would commit a terrorist act.

FRANCE 24: France’s interior minister, Gérard Collomb, has said that around a third of people reported for radicalisation have psychological issues. What do you make of this suggestion?

Fethi Benslama: I’ve asked myself where he got this data from. I don’t know what this figure is based on – the file on radicalisation is not available to researchers. We’ve been asking to have access to it for the last two years. The interior minister has statistics that have been communicated to him by his [security] services, but what expertise do [they] have in judging whether or not these people [in the FSPRT file] have psychological problems? Rather than withholding this information, it should be transmitted to researchers. A scientific advisory board on radicalisation was set up by the previous government. It's up to this board to analyse this data.

FRANCE 24: Collomb also said that he wants to mobilise psychiatric hospitals and psychiatrists to identify the profiles of those who might commit acts of terrorism. What do you think about that?

It’s absurd. Some psychiatric patients have gone on to commit violent acts but they are very few in number compared to the majority of people who have committed such acts. I believe that psychiatrists are right not to adhere to this analysis. Besides, we don’t see how it can work. Is it about making a report each time a patient becomes delirious or makes remarks about current affairs? That said, the law already provides for this. We don’t need any particular [method]. When a psychiatrist believes that somebody is likely to commit a crime, the psychiatrist [informs the police]. If we don’t, we could be prosecuted. In all other situations, we’re bound by professional confidentiality.

FRANCE 24: How do you detect the signs of a potential crime?

It’s very complicated. But let’s say that some personalities are very dangerous. Psychiatrists know how to diagnose them. But they represent a minority [of patients]; a general rule on the prevention of terrorism can’t be drawn from that. Terrorists aren’t mentally ill. There’s also a confusion between mental illness and psychological disorders. Mental illnesses are treated by psychiatry. And numerous people display psychological disorders but they don’t necessarily become terrorists. If they did, we’d have hundreds of thousands of them committing [terrorist] acts.

Committing an act [of terrorism] is something individual. It doesn’t obey any of the factors that we try to pass off as being determinant. A while ago, they said it was because [terrorists] came from the suburbs; now one talks about mental issues. Each time, one blames it on something particular or makes a generalisation. One tries to find a general explanation where no such thing exists. A violent act is a subjective, individual act [and should be looked at] on a case-by-case basis. If it were possible to systematically spot [potential terrorists], well, I think that the intelligence services would have already used this [strategy].

FRANCE 24: Do you think there are improvements that can be made and, if so, how?

The interior minister must really give researchers access to the FSPRT file, which has recorded more than 17,000 people (Editor's note: Beslama cited an earlier figure), so that we can analyse it. It may well be that there’s a strong propensity for people who suffer from psychological disorders [to become terrorists], but that is unknown at this stage. In order to improve our preventative tactics, we need more information. There isn't any other solution. The files need to be opened, but within a strict framework.

Date created : 2017-08-24

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