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Why mental health and neurodivergence should not be used to explain incel violence


In recent years, incidents of violence committed by “involuntary celibates” (incels) have raised questions about the risks and worldview of those who espouse incel beliefs. In 2022, a standing committee of the Canadian Parliament explored the Connections between incel violence and threats of extremism.

Some recent studies They have taken a public health approach, identifying incels as vulnerable individuals in need of mental health and social support. Indeed, mental health support is crucial to providing help to incels. However, mental health and neurodivergence should not be characterized as drivers of incel violence. Such interpretations may stigmatize neurodivergence and also minimize incels’ responsibility for acts of violence.

Are incels vulnerable individuals who represent a public health crisis? Or a collective movement that poses a threat of gender-based violence and terrorism?

Who are incels?

Incels are individuals who attribute their lack of sexual intimacy Women are victims of an undue form of oppression. They form a misogynistic community, largely made up of men, who resent being denied their “right” to have sexual relations with women. These beliefs are channelled into promoting violence against women.

In Canada, there have been two major incidents of violence in recent years that have drawn attention to the incel movement.

In 2020, a 17-year-old boy fatally stabbed a woman at a massage parlor in Toronto, in an incident that was declared in 2023 as the First act of incel-related terrorism in Canada.

In the 2018 Toronto van attack, Alek Minassian He killed 10 people and another died more than three years later.He originally told police he was inspired by incels, but his Later, at the trial, different versions of his motivations were heard..

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Police are seen near the damaged van used by Alek Minassian during the 2018 attack in Toronto.
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Aaron Vincent Elkaim

In his court case, Minassian’s lawyers He argued that his autism spectrum disorder diagnosis prevented him from making rational decisions and realizing that his actions were morally wrong. This use of autism as an argument to evade criminal responsibility Autism advocacy groups outraged and ultimately failed in court.

Mental health, neurodivergence and gender violence

The public debate and interest in incels is connected to broader discussions about mental health and its Relationship with gender violence and organized ideological violence.

Recently, a UK study assessed how harm can be predicted among incel populations, exploring the role of mental health, autism, ideology, and social networks.

The report presents the largest survey to date of self-identified incels, including 561 individuals residing in the UK or US and aged over 18. More than a third of participants were found to meet criteria for moderate depression (39 per cent) and anxiety (43 per cent), along with high levels of loneliness and anger. In addition, the report found that 30 per cent of incels surveyed met clinical criteria for referrals for autism assessment, but not an explicit diagnosis.

While the report cautions against causally linking autism and terrorism, focusing on this finding could contribute to a stigmatizing claim that incels have a higher rate and likelihood of being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.

Some media outlets have cited the report, emphasizing that Incels are 30 times more likely to be autistic than the general population. While the original report offers valuable data on incel populations, its findings can be misused to reinforce harmful narratives against people with autism. This can lead to stigmatizing and false claims that autistic people are predisposed to violence, radicalization, or hate ideologies due to their diagnosis.

Many people with autism see it as something integral and positive part of their identity, rather than a disease to be curedPresenting autism as a mental disorder that leads to violence reinforces ableist narratives about autistic people as more likely to commit crimes when in general they are… are more likely to be victims than perpetrators of crimes.

A balancing act

How can we balance empathy for people struggling with mental health issues while also holding violent actors accountable?

Mental health resources for people in incel spaces are crucial to preventing violence. A study He noted that social isolation can exacerbate the negative feelings that lead people to join incel communities in search of a sense of belonging.

The UK study rightly concludes that interventions aimed at addressing the mental health of the incel community require an effective harm reduction strategy. However, the factors influencing poor mental health need to be assessed beyond individual factors such as autism or mental health diagnoses.

A man in a dark room sits on the floor using a laptop while leaning on a sofa.

Addressing incel violence requires a more fluid and collaborative understanding of public health and counterterrorism approaches to addressing the problem.
(Shutterstock)

We must also examine the systemic factors that influence the adverse mental health of those forced to join the incel community. such as the role of technology and the Internet in facilitating radicalization and the lack of social support programs for people in vulnerable situations.

The UK report argues that “Incels need mental health support rather than anti-terror intervention“While mental health support is crucial, adopting a public health approach alone instead of a comprehensive public safety and counterterrorism perspective can be reductive.

Incels can be characterized as Lone Wolves in a way that ignores the organized nature of the incel community in promoting violence. Furthermore, it dismisses ongoing efforts to understand How forms of gender-based violence can support a radical ideology classified as extremism or terrorismPublic health initiatives and counter-terrorism should not be seen as trade-offs, but should work hand-in-hand to identify the threats of gender-based ideological extremism and work towards mental health approaches to deradicalisation.

Addressing incel violence requires a more fluid and collaborative understanding of public health and counterterrorism approaches to tackling the problem. Greater attention must be paid to balancing accountability for violence and empathy for people in need of mental health support.

If you are experiencing mental health and wellbeing issues, we encourage you to seek help and resources. You can consult This repository of mental health services worldwide.



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