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Lone-Wolf Terrorists and Mental Illness
Dr. Kathryn Seifert, Trauma and Violence Expert Dr. Kathryn Seifert, Trauma and Violence Expert
For Immediate Release:
Dateline: Baltimore, MD
Tuesday, January 20, 2015


Research has shown that a significant number of, but by no means all, so-called “lone-wolf terrorists” have been suffering from a diagnosable mental illness. Therefore, for some, it is not only ideology that drives them; it is a combination of multiple factors whether it in fact is ideology, anger, or depression. Therefore the question we must ask ourselves is what can we do to reduce the risk of violent acts carried out by lone-wolf terrorists? The answer to this question is not simply better intelligence or a more effective police force. Whilst improvements in the detection and apprehension of likely perpetrators and terrorists is of paramount importance, another path we need to take to reduce the risk of lone-wolf terrorist attacks is to improve our behavioral health systems and increase the availability and quality of services for those that require them. A severely mentally ill person that is also at risk for violence needs access to high quality, non-stigmatized behavioral health and ancillary services over their lifespan in order to reduce the risk of them becoming violent and strengthen their ability to live a healthy, pro-social lifestyle.

Studies have indicated that a larger percentage of lone-wolf terrorists are found to be mentally ill when compared with group-oriented terrorists or the general population. However, mental Illness and violence are two very different characteristics in people, neither of which is sufficient to define or predict the other (Spaaij, 2012; Gill & Corner, 2014). Dr’s. Spaaij, Gill and Corner determined that there is no single profile of the lone-wolf terrorist, but, as a group, they have multiple characteristics in common. Still, not all group members have every characteristic, such as mental illness. Additionally, and quite importantly, only a minority of people with mental illnesses are violent when not in treatment.

Dr. Spaaij found high levels of personality disorders and depression among a group of 88 lone-wolf terrorists in 15 countries. Across three studies examined, one can conclude that many lone-wolf terrorists have some or all of the following characteristics: a mental illness, vocational problems, high-stress levels, problem’s with intimate partner relationships, social awkwardness, violent communications, and high intelligence. Many lone-wolf terrorists can be said to have had difficulties functioning adequately in everyday life and maintaining healthy relationships. These characteristics may or may not be defined as a mental illness, but these problems can be improved by utilizing skill building as a component of wellness services for those at risk for violence.    

Other studies of those at high, medium, or low risk for general violence have found that the more risk factors for violence that a person has, the more likely the person is to act out violently when not in treatment and under excessive stress, or when they suffer a blow to their ego such as been admonished or disciplined in their place of employment. Each person that has engaged in general violence appears to have a unique set of risk and resiliency factors, which is why no single profile has been found. It may be that the same is true for lone-wolf terrorists. It is also possible that using Risk Reduction Planning Tools while youth are young and displaying risk factors can prevent tragic events as the youth get older, but not necessarily more mature. 

The risk tools presently used for those at risk for violence are based on the concept of chronic violence.  This model overlaps, but does not neatly fit the characteristics of the lone-wolf terrorist or the severely mentally ill or autistic individual committing a single act of horrific, public mass murder, or attempted mass murder. A new theoretical model is needed for violent lone-wolf terrorists and single actor public mass murderers. 

If a person fails to attach to others in a way that allows for successful interpersonal relationships, empathy for others will not successfully develop. Without empathy, one does not have the inhibitory process to prevent him or her from harming others. The precursors of poor interpersonal attachment are trauma—often of an interpersonal nature in early childhood, adolescence, or adulthood.  In childhood, the interpersonal trauma is primarily abuse, neglect, or domestic violence in the home of the child. In adolescence, the trauma appears in the form of peer bullying and rejection. In adulthood, the lack of interpersonal attachment presents as failure to form a deep emotional relationship with a partner or close friend. This is a theory that I continue to research and more needs to be done before it can definitely proven but it gives a structure in order for the continued research to be possible.

In practical terms, society must identify and stop family violence, abuse, neglect, bullying, and peer rejection. It is important to provide treatment for children and families that have difficulties with basic life and interpersonal skills.

Behavioral health is very broad, encompassing health, home, community and purpose. It is important for all to achieve, but especially those at risk for violence. We can identify those at high risk for a lifelong trajectory of violence at a young age. This is when behavioral health services should be offered to youth and their families. If the youth has broken the law, services should be mandated. Society should make efforts to stop lone-wolf terrorism before it becomes a risk to society by using appropriate identification and treatment that is mandated when possible. If we keep going on the course we currently find ourselves then we will fail and we will see more and more lone-wolf terrorist attacks taking place on US soil. In order to combat this risk effectively we need to improve at every stage in the process, from the intelligence services to law enforcement, from the behavioral health system to the criminal justice system. If we do not, the risk we face from mentally ill lone-wolf terrorists will be allowed to grow.

Written by: Dr. Kathryn Seifert

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Dr. Kathryn Seifert is a leading voice internationally in the areas of violence, mental health, criminal justice and addictions. The CEO of Eastern Shore Psychological Services (ESPS), Dr. Seifert specializes in the assessment and treatment of individuals who are at risk for violence and/or suffering from attachment disorders. 

She has frequently appeared on national networks to discuss violence and mental health, appearing on Anderson Cooper 360 on CNN, the Huffington Post Live, Discovery ID, Fox News, and CBC in Canada. Dr. Seifert has written two books on the subject; the first, How Children Become (Acanthus Publishing 2006), was awarded the 2007 IPPY (Independent Book Publishers Award) bronze medal in the Psychology/Mental Health Category, and her second book, Youth Violence: Theory, Prevention, and Intervention (Springer Publishing 2011), is frequently utilized in the professional community and in courses and training sessions. 

As an expert contributor for Psychology Today, Dr. Seifert's blog, "Stop the Cycle," has amassed over 150,000 views in the last two years. 

Dr. Seifert has lectured in Italy, Canada, the Netherlands, and across the United States. Past conferences and events include Maryland Psychological Association Annual Conference, Pennsylvania's NAMI Cherry Blossom Charity Ball, and the Conference on the Federal Response to Reducing Gun Violence, which took place following the Sandy Hook tragedy and was headlined by Vice President Joe Biden. 

She is currently finalizing her upcoming book, Failure to Attach: The Why Behind Terrorists and Mass Murderers, which will be published later this year.

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