Preventing Violent Extremism Needs a Public Health Approach

More needs to be done to understand the journey that leads individuals to commit acts of violent extremism.

The Preventing violent extremism in the UK: Public health solutions report urges public services to work together to tackle the broader risk factors for involvement in violent extremism that are often hidden behind discussions about politics, race and religion.

In the first publication of its kind in the UK, the Faculty of Public Health and Public Health Wales outline why we must work harder to understand and address underlying issues which promote vulnerability to violent extremism, such as childhood trauma, poor mental health, social isolation, prejudice and inequity.

Based on studies from around the world and consultation with experts in public health and criminal justice, the report acknowledges the important role criminal justice agencies play in suppressing the activity of those already planning terrorist acts.

However, it identifies an urgent need to monitor how policies to tackle, not only violent extremism, but issues such as inequality, integration and health and well-being can all impact support for, and rejection of, violent activity in different communities.

Findings from the report identify a range of individual and community factors which could better predict risks of violent extremism. These include early childhood trauma and chronic stress, social isolation and a lack of belonging, intolerance to diversity and socioeconomic inequity. The report identifies that surprisingly little work has been undertaken to understand how these factors have affected the life course of those already involved in violent extremism and what this tells us about early prevention options for others on the same path.

Professor Mark Bellis of Public Health Wales and a co-author of the report said: "Increasingly we recognise that issues we face today are rooted in the harms, prejudices and other adversities that make up people's past. Preventing these harms wherever possible and ensuring early remedial action are already critical elements in addressing harmful life styles and reducing risks of other types of violence. Adopting such approaches could be a game-changer in our approach to preventing violent extremism."

The report also argues that community level risk could be reduced by approaches including reducing barriers to advancement in some communities, better understanding and supporting the health issues of refugees and other migrant populations, and increasing opportunities for individuals to engage with a diverse range of others.

Katie Hardcastle, co-author of the report said: "We understand that interpersonal violence such as child maltreatment or youth violence, conflict and violent extremism are all linked. Exposure to one can increase risks of involvement in others.

"The solutions to each type of violence are also linked but currently our exchange of evidence and expertise is not. We hope this report helps demonstrate how a public health approach to violent extremism can encourage the rejection of violent ideologies and the adoption of tolerance and diversity through interventions that also allow people to adopt healthier, social and more productive lives."

Professor John Middleton, President of the UK Faculty of Public Health said "Violent extremism is a persistent threat in the UK and, as recent tragic events in New Zealand and Sri Lanka have exposed, no country is beyond its reach. This report is very much focused on our domestic threat but a public health approach to tackling terrorism would benefit many nations.

"Too often efforts to reduce risks of violent extremism are unduly focused on certain groups of individuals, the vast majority of whom pose no threat at all. We must be certain that the actions we take to prevent atrocities committed by a handful of people do not reduce the trust wider communities have in the societies in which they live."

More needs to be done to understand the journey that leads individuals to commit acts of violent extremism.

The Preventing violent extremism in the UK: Public health solutions report urges public services to work together to tackle the broader risk factors for involvement in violent extremism that are often hidden behind discussions about politics, race and religion.

In the first publication of its kind in the UK, the Faculty of Public Health and Public Health Wales outline why we must work harder to understand and address underlying issues which promote vulnerability to violent extremism, such as childhood trauma, poor mental health, social isolation, prejudice and inequity.

Based on studies from around the world and consultation with experts in public health and criminal justice, the report acknowledges the important role criminal justice agencies play in suppressing the activity of those already planning terrorist acts.

However, it identifies an urgent need to monitor how policies to tackle, not only violent extremism, but issues such as inequality, integration and health and well-being can all impact support for, and rejection of, violent activity in different communities.

Findings from the report identify a range of individual and community factors which could better predict risks of violent extremism. These include early childhood trauma and chronic stress, social isolation and a lack of belonging, intolerance to diversity and socioeconomic inequity. The report identifies that surprisingly little work has been undertaken to understand how these factors have affected the life course of those already involved in violent extremism and what this tells us about early prevention options for others on the same path.

Professor Mark Bellis of Public Health Wales and a co-author of the report said: “Increasingly we recognise that issues we face today are rooted in the harms, prejudices and other adversities that make up people’s past. Preventing these harms wherever possible and ensuring early remedial action are already critical elements in addressing harmful life styles and reducing risks of other types of violence. Adopting such approaches could be a game-changer in our approach to preventing violent extremism.”

The report also argues that community level risk could be reduced by approaches including reducing barriers to advancement in some communities, better understanding and supporting the health issues of refugees and other migrant populations, and increasing opportunities for individuals to engage with a diverse range of others.

Katie Hardcastle, co-author of the report said: “We understand that interpersonal violence such as child maltreatment or youth violence, conflict and violent extremism are all linked. Exposure to one can increase risks of involvement in others.

“The solutions to each type of violence are also linked but currently our exchange of evidence and expertise is not. We hope this report helps demonstrate how a public health approach to violent extremism can encourage the rejection of violent ideologies and the adoption of tolerance and diversity through interventions that also allow people to adopt healthier, social and more productive lives.”

Professor John Middleton, President of the UK Faculty of Public Health said “Violent extremism is a persistent threat in the UK and, as recent tragic events in New Zealand and Sri Lanka have exposed, no country is beyond its reach. This report is very much focused on our domestic threat but a public health approach to tackling terrorism would benefit many nations.

“Too often efforts to reduce risks of violent extremism are unduly focused on certain groups of individuals, the vast majority of whom pose no threat at all. We must be certain that the actions we take to prevent atrocities committed by a handful of people do not reduce the trust wider communities have in the societies in which they live.”