Why the #Woolwich murder is almost certainly not about #mentalhealth

The events that took place in Woolwich yesterday were truly shocking, tragic and indefensible. A young man killed in the street by two individuals, apparently motivated by Islamist extremism.

Scrolling through the responses on both new and old media has been a depressing stream of bloviating blowhards, all rushing to insist that the tragedy demonstrates their own personal political agenda. We had George Galloway implying it was because of Britain’s support for Syrian rebels. There was Tommy Robinson of the EDL and Nick Griffin of the BNP, exploiting the events to stoke up their desire for a modern day crusade against Islam. Michael Moore engaged in a facile piece of whataboutery with regard to drone strikes in Pakistan. In a beyond-parody move, Toby Young claimed that this was why we need free schools. All these professional rentamouths seemed immune to any suggestion of, “It’s not about you. Just mourn the poor lad, and let the police get on with their job.”

Much more well-intentioned, but no less wrong, has been the insistence I’ve seen repeated on social media that this atrocity “must be” due to a mental health issue. I’ve even seen this suggested on Twitter by some doctors (though they weren’t psychiatrists). The bottom line though is that there simply isn’t any evidence for that.

The information coming out about the alleged killers has so far been rather scanty, but there’s been no suggestion that either of them had a psychiatric history. I don’t intend to post the footage of Michael Olumide Adebolajo bragging about his crime – I think we’ve all seen it quite enough. However, although it’s important to be cautious about saying whether someone does or doesn’t have a mental illness from a brief video clip, I didn’t see anything in it to suggest that he was psychotic. He seemed excitable and agitated, though that’s not too surprising given the circumstances. He didn’t seem thought-disordered, and didn’t appear to be responding to hallucinations. On the contrary, he struck me as giving a very clear and coherent account of why he had done this act – in other words, the very opposite of psychosis.

Also, the suggestion that it’s about mental illness doesn’t take into account the rather obvious point that there were two of them. Had they suddenly fallen into some strange folie a deux that gave them the mistaken belief that they support jihadism?

The suggestion that they were mentally ill seems to boil down to the idea that if people do something that the rest of society finds difficult to fathom, then the only explanation is that they’re mentally ill. One person asked me, “But would they hang around for 20 mins waiting for the police afterwards if not mentally ill?” To which the simple answer is, yes, if they wanted to use their actions to make a statement. Which they clearly did.

The brutal truth is that from the dawn of prehistory, mentally healthy individuals have done unspeakable things to each other. Roman legions slicing barbarian tribes to pieces with swords and spears…Vikings pillaging the monastery at Lindisfarne…the SS guards at Auschwitz….the highly-skilled airmen who dropped the most terrible weapon ever devised on Hiroshima. All terrible acts of cruelty, and all done by people considered the finest in their society.

You don’t need to be mentally ill to commit an atrocity. In fact, mental illness can be a severe hindrance. Just try organising a pogrom of the ghetto when you’re too paralysed by social anxiety to leave the house. All people need to do appalling things to innocent humans is a belief that the lives of a certain group of people has less value than of your group; or a belief that your cause is sufficiently worthwhile that the ends justify the means.

When you think about it like that, the greatest threat to humanity is not from people with mental illnesses, but from idealists with weaponry.



About Phil Dore

Trained as a nurse, currently working in Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS). All views expressed are in a personal capacity and not necessarily the views of my employer.

11 Responses to “Why the #Woolwich murder is almost certainly not about #mentalhealth”

  1. Excellent review of the situation Z. My Facebook feed has been a pretty much continuous stream of nationalistic chest beating and Political rants for the past 24 hours. So much so that I haven’t really looked at anything apart from Doctor Who posts and stuff my wife has been sending me.

    One thing that struck me last night about teh Mental Health issue in relation to this is that there was a Security “Expert” on TV last night and he made a point that the fact that the two men stood around after the fact led him to believe that there was (excuse me but i don’t recall his exact terminology) Psychological Reasoning behind it. He approached it the same way a charecter on Criminal Minds would approach it. He gave two possible explanations for it. One was suggesting that they were exhibiting scant regard for their own saftey when the police arrived and wanted to be shot as part of their grand plan.

    Apologies for the vagueness, I hope I got my point across.

  2. The suggestion that they were mentally ill seems to boil down to the idea that if people do something that the rest of society finds difficult to fathom, then the only explanation is that they’re mentally ill.

    You nailed it, right there.

  3. THIS to the infinite power. People with mental health problems are far more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violence.

  4. John kerry-williams 24 May 2013 at 5:01pm

    A genuine, first class and sensitively written piece; articulate and eloquently put. I do wonder however, whether there is evidence to suggest that the offender(s) could be delusional – they became a danger to themselves and others based on irrational and unfathomable beliefs. I don’t think religion (in this case religion-fueled extremism) should necessarily immunise them from being considered deluded.

  5. I always remember when Bin Laden was referred to as ‘psychotic’ as if to add greater heinousness to his crimes, good grief I’ve never met anyone defined as psychotic who would be organised enough to orchestrate world wide terrorist activities. It’s like ‘loony left’ and all the other political and media slurs, using mental illness language is somehow acceptable where racist slurs are not. Mentalism is the last civil rights struggle.

  6. ps I do think there has been a problem with this country’s foreign policies for many years including Iraq and Afghanistan, which has stoked up grievances and intolerance [on all sides] but this still doesn’t make it a mental health issue, acts such as these will be ‘hooked onto’ any set of beliefs whatever the state of the world. Although it’s hard to not define many politicians as sadistic narcissistic pathological liars!..

  7. I really agree with this article and I feel that by attributing these men’s actions to mental health issues is to absolve them of some of the responsibility for the horrific actions they have perpetrated. People throw the word ‘mad’ around but there is a difference between religious extremism and mental health problems.

  8. i dont know the more i hear (and goodness knows we are hearing a lot!) the more i am wondering if there is a delusional disorder going on with Mr Adebolajo, the belief he was being harrased and stalked by MI5, people describing him as paranoid and agitated……its an interesting thing to ponder in my view when does religious fundamentalism become delusional?

    • Was it a delusional belief though? His relatives seem to be suggesting he actually was being contacted by MI5, rather than that he simply believed it.

  9. I have read this with interest. Whilst I agree with you that these people didn’t from the brief clip seem to be showing psychosis. Psychosis isn’t the only form of mental health issue. In my view we ALL have mental health issues, and we are all on a spectrum of some sort. There is no hierarchy in mental health either, a lack of a psychiatric history doesn’t mean that someone doesn’t have mental health issues – especially at a young age. It depends upon how you are defining mental health.
    In my view, a person who has converted to extremism in such a way, isn’t rational. Something somewhere went wrong. I feel the more we separate people and put people into boxes the further we are from understanding mental health and the human experience.


  1. Frontline Friday 24th May 2013: Our favourite frontline blogs this week - 25 May 2013

    […] Why the #Woolwich murder is almost certainly not about #mentalhealth […]


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 5,150 other followers

%d bloggers like this: