When the strain of the pandemic leads to radicalization

Dr. Cécile Rousseau, head of the Polarization Clinical Team of CIUSSS West-Central Montreal
Dr. Cécile Rousseau, head of the Polarization Clinical Team of CIUSSS West-Central Montreal

Team from our CIUSSS addresses the despair that can lead to violent extremism

It might be a spouse who speaks darkly about world conspiracies. A student who scrawls racist insignias in her notebook. A youth who joins street protests because he sees anti-COVID face masks as an evil government plot.

These are the kinds of cases that can end up with the Polarization Clinical Team of CIUSSS West-Central Montreal. The clinic provides evaluation and support for those caught in the grip of radicalization, and at a time of stress and isolation caused by the pandemic, its services are in growing demand.

“As the pandemic accentuates social suffering and despair, especially among young people, our team plays a role that’s more important than ever,” says Dr. Cécile Rousseau, head of the team and a Professor in Social and Cultural Psychiatry at McGill University.

The clinic, based at the CLSC de Parc-Extension since its creation five years ago, received a mandate from the Quebec Ministry of Health and Social Services in the mid-2010s in the wake of public alarm: Several students from Montreal had become radicalized to the point of leaving the city to join Islamist fighters abroad.

Now, however, the clinic sees clients whose radicalization is drawn from a range of social, political or religious forces. Some have been referred by police, others by school directors or perhaps a family doctor; in some cases, they have been ordered there by a judge after being convicted of a hate crime.

The clinic is unique in Quebec in addressing the link between radicalization and mental health. The psychiatrists, social workers and psychologists on the team don’t try to challenge the person’s beliefs; they try to find out what fuelled them.

“Our approach is aimed at people’s despair,” Dr. Rousseau says. “We try to give them hope again, to break their isolation and to help give meaning to their lives. We don’t confront their ideologies, we address the suffering that feeds them.”

Richard Horne, a social worker at the clinic, says it’s counterproductive to try to take on people’s deep-held beliefs. “It’s like trying to convince a Montreal Canadiens fan to support the Boston Bruins,” he says. Rather, he tries to explore the person’s background and create a link of trust. Has there been trauma in their life? Family violence? Were they bullied in school? “If they feel like a victim, that can create a sense of injustice,” Mr. Horne says. “Someone who is psychologically fragile is more at risk at looking for other outlets.”

Experts say the COVID-19 pandemic, with its lockdowns and social distancing, has provided fertile ground for conspiracy theories, aided by the Internet. Amid isolation and anxiety, some people find a sense of belonging in extremist online communities, whose conspiracies can be rooted in racist or misogynistic views, coronavirus denial, or anti-vaccine misinformation.

“Some individuals can feel stronger when they get involved in movements like that,” says Anousheh Machouf, a psychologist at the clinic. “They can forget their personal distress, and put all their efforts into a cause to support. They’re trying to find a meaning to their lives.”

These virtual communities become an “echo chamber” that reinforces a person’s conspiratorial mindset. “They provide a magic solution to make them feel stronger and less isolated,” Ms. Machouf says.

Treatment at the Polarization Clinical Team can include counselling, therapy or medication, depending on clients’ needs. Besides initial assessment, the clinic provides follow-up support and can even help with education or employment options. The clinic also offers training for healthcare professionals, community groups and schools, and acts as a reference for regional clinics across Quebec that deal with polarization.

The Polarization Clinical Team of CIUSSS West-Central Montreal can be reached at 514-267-3979, from 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., seven days a week. Its services are confidential.