‘Mental Health Issues’ And Terrorism


One person has been killed and several others were injured in a knife attack in London earlier this week. A 19 year old Somali-Norwegian named Zakaria Bulhan is being held on suspicion of murder and the investigation is on-going.

Given the increasing number of Islamic terror attacks across Europe by similar means, people have understandably been wondering if this was also an act of Jihadism. It seems the answer is ‘no’. From The Guardian:

Police believe the attack was “spontaneous” and triggered by mental health issues, with victims selected at random. The Metropolitan police assistant commissioner, Mark Rowley, said: “We’ve found no evidence of radicalisation that would suggest the man in our custody is in anyway motivated by terrorism

“Whilst the investigation is not yet complete – all of the work that we have done so far, increasingly points to this tragic incident as having been triggered by mental health issues. At this time we believe this was a spontaneous attack and the victims were selected at random.”

It has also been reported that the suspect was a patient at a mental health facility located in the area of the attack, although the specifics of his treatment remain undisclosed.

Although there are currently no reasons to suspect an act of terrorism has taken place in this instance, a common, yet pernicious narrative has taken hold nonetheless. A narrative that is liberally applied to actual acts of terror –  namely, that once a suspect is reported to have ‘mental health issues’, all potential ideological motivations are to be discarded.

It’s a narrative that I’ve unwittingly fed into myself before too. For instance, I’d often be reluctant to amplify reports of Islamic extremism where a mental health component was present. I’ve since come to realise that it’s not a simple and/or scenario.

Using ‘mental health’ as a blanket explanation for acts of violence homogenises people with mental health issues. From the depressed and the schizophrenic, to those suffering from PTSD and alcoholism – mental health exists on a spectrum.

People seem almost relieved to discover the mental health component of a violent act without realising the ramifications of what they are propagating. To look at it charitably, people often exempt Islam from causal influences of violence in a well-meaning desire to prevent demonization of Muslims. You have to wonder what they think they are doing for the mentally ill then, by using ‘mental health issues’ as a blanket excuse for murderous violence.

Mental health is already a greatly stigmatised issue. To propagate the general idea that violence is to be expected from those affected, or that violence only makes sense in the light of mental illness is to do a great disservice to a many number of people adequately managing their own mental health issues.

Jo Loughram of ‘Time To Change’ which campaigns to end mental health discrimination released the following statement:

“We understand that the Police have released an update about the tragic incident at Russell Square stating that mental health is an increasingly significant factor in this case. The media must rightly report on this angle but we encourage them to do so responsibly.

There have been a number of horrendous acts of violence committed across Europe over recent weeks. As the media look to unpick these extremely complex incidents to explore motivations and reason we urge journalists and editors to provide well informed and balanced coverage of mental health.
Millions of people experience mental health problems every year and the overwhelming majority will never pose a risk to others.”

Stephen Knight is host of The #GSPodcast. You can listen to The Godless Spellchecker Podcast here, and support it by becoming a patron here.


  • I agree with Jo.
    The term “Asian grooming gangs” is equally offensive to non Muslim Asians.

    Anything to avoid naming the elephant.

  • Thank you for pointing this out. As a sufferer of depression and anxiety, I thought it was great that people were trying to remove the negative stigma surrounding mental heath. It really makes it harder to be open about it when every time there is a mass shooting here in the US, people will willfully ignore evidence and jump strait to (and only to) “Well, he was mentally ill.”

    Thanks, guys. It really helps when you make a conscience link between every mass shooting and mental health….

  • I think the language of mental health is more open to discussion than religion. With religion people seem to adopt other people’s words as more valued than their own words. Whereas with mental health hopefully people are helped to verbalise their own narrative of their world. Dorothy Rowe {psychologist} says it’s important to listen to persons story so as to help them be in a better place in this world.

What do you think? Leave some comments!