31/10/2014 14:09 GMT | Updated 31/12/2014 05:59 GMT

Our Unwillingness to Understand More About Radicalisation Risks Failing Our Youth

Depression is known to cause a pessimistic outlook, an inflexible view of the world, and even suicide. Our research into the root causes of radicalisation - perhaps not surprisingly - found a link between depressive symptoms and sympathies towards terrorist acts. These sympathies being an early marker for risk of radicalisation.

These are dark times. Terrorist threat is growing, videos of beheadings frequent the news, and we are witnessing young people leave the sanctuary of their life in the UK to join war in the Middle East. Why?

To understand how a person who is seemingly integrated and happy in British society becomes radicalised to the point of wanting to join a terrorist organisation in another country, we must first increase our understanding of how the process of radicalisation begins.

We asked over 600 men and women of Bangladeshi and Pakistani origin whether they sympathised with or condemned acts of violent protest and terrorism, to measure their vulnerability to radicalising influences. We also asked about a number of social and emotional processes.

Depression is known to cause a pessimistic outlook, an inflexible view of the world, and even suicide. Our research into the root causes of radicalisation - perhaps not surprisingly - found a link between depressive symptoms and sympathies towards terrorist acts. These sympathies being an early marker for risk of radicalisation.

Alongside depression, those who were socially isolated were also vulnerable to radicalising influences. However, experiences of discrimination in society or life trauma - often used until now to explain radicalisation - were not found to be linked.

One of the most surprising aspects of our research found that migrants not born in the UK are at less risk of radicalisation than British born Muslims. We can speculate that this is because migrants can appreciate what the UK offers compared to their home country; the NHS, more comfortable working conditions, a democratic political system.

Migrants have invested in their new home and established themselves as part of a new society. They want to work and improve their situation. This gives purpose and meaning to their lives, and they have lived through significant life transitions. They have formed bridges with people from different parts of the community, reached out to integrate and settle in to a new life.

'Low social capital' - a measure of mistrust, feeling unsafe and unsatisfied with living area - is usually associated with poor health, deprivation, and depression. However, in our research we found low social capital, also common among migrants, was linked to condemnation for violent protest and terrorism, rather than sympathy.

These findings together suggest that facing difficult life challenges and transitions are a helpful form of adversity, giving value and meaning to lives. British born Muslims born will have a very different experience of living in the UK, and it may be that social isolation and a lack of purpose among those with depressive emotions, is driving the experimentation with more risky, thrilling, radical ideas and influences.

Women are as likely as men to show sympathies for violent protest and terrorism. However, the recent stories of men going to fight in Syria and young women, often children, going to be brides, suggest that men and women respond to these desires in accord with ascribed gender roles. The pursuit of these fantasies and experiments with new identity are often short lived. Reports suggest many regret running away to conflict zones when they discover war is not glamorous. We need only talk to soldiers who are suffering with post-traumatic symptoms, alcohol misuse, and difficulties settling into civilian life to see the harsh impact of war on human life.

The current counter-terrorist focus on a 'watch list' of high-risk offenders overlooks the 'public health' preventive approach and neglects the search for a better understanding of how young people may be vulnerable to radicalisation, irrespective of their heritage.

Public health interventions have been instrumental in helping tackle issues from gang violence and gun crime to smoking and self-harm. In the same way, we now need to apply preventive interventions at the very early stages of emerging sympathies towards terrorism.

If a public health approach were adopted, we could begin to break down the taboo of talking about radicalisation and extremism. It could be a topic of family, school, religious and community negotiations. It need not be so feared and stigmatised, and individuals harbouring such ideas could access help. The default response, as it is now, should not necessarily be criminalisation, whether or not returning from Syria.

Many faith and non-faith groups seem to rely on narratives of trauma and tragedy in their histories as a way of keeping alive their heritage. This process needs to be questioned and such historical narratives of trauma need to be opened up and emotionally processed to permit life in the present and participation as a citizen.

Families need to be more involved in discussions with their children about the threat of radicalisation. Children are frequently exposed to, and aware of, media reports of violence, murder, political protest and injustice - so why do we shield them away from this particular topic?

It is possible to approach the issue of radicalisation and undertake research in a transparent way, without causing fear or suspicion- we did just that.

Members of the Muslim community want to be part of the solution; they want more evidence on the issue. Community groups welcomed our research as a non-incriminating way of understanding why people might take a fatal pathway, risk death and trauma and turn their backs on family, friends and future lives.

Half of all mental illnesses start before the age of 14, and as a society we continue to do precious little to provide early and preventive intervention. What there is has, under austerity measures, been slashed.

How much do we care about our youth? We must invest in this issue if we're to get further understanding and answers. We should try and bring our young people back from Syria and work to rehabilitate them; learn about what happened to them whilst trying to restore them to fulfilling their potential as British citizens. We must rise to the challenge of showing terrorists that their marketing of infectious ideas through persuasive technologies and social media are ineffective and will be defeated.