Mental Health and Peacebuilding
This month's newsletter will focus on mental health and peacebuilding. Mental health, as a component of peacebuilding, tends to be often overlooked and seen as secondary. Transformative Peace (TP) sees mental health as an essential ingredient of peacebuilding. It is for this reason that Transformative Peace tries to incorporate trauma-informed interventions into the peacebuilding strategies that we develop.
Why Mental Health Matters?
Mental health cannot be separated from community resilience. In fact, mental health is considered a vitally important sub-element of community resilience (Patel, et. al, 2017). Problems within that sub-element may be particularly pronounced within communities affected by war or conflict, increasing the vulnerability of communities. Conflict zones and extremist environments pose substantial threats to the mental health of those within them, especially children. Negative mental health impacts, may in fact, be bred into the organizational fabric of extremist groups. Violent extremist radicalization processes often have, as a core mechanism, the combination of constant traumatic and therapeutic elements as a tool of recruitment and control.
Mental Health, Conflict Prevention, and Radicalization
Transformative peace takes a trauma-informed approach to community resilience, which is empirically supported within the conflict prevention, peacebuilding, and PVE literature. Meta-studies have identified mental health factors, such as negative life experiences, fundamental uncertainty, dispositional anxiety, aggression, impulsivity and negative emotions like anger and contempt, as key driving forces of radicalization (Koehler, 2020).
The deliberate and undeliberate creation of trauma and toxic stress is a key psychological mechanism of radicalization, transmitted environmentally and ideologically. For example, existential threats proliferate within conflict zones and can be centered within extremist world-views, as is the dehumanization of the enemy. People involved in violent conflict may also have to make sense of and grapple with risks of revenge and other forms of punishments as consequences for non-compliance. This kind of exposure to toxic environments and ideologies cultivates negative behavioral, emotional, and psychological responses (Koehler, 2020).
Another key aspect of mental health that is central to its relationship with peacebuilding, is the concept of toxic stress. Stress-management and a positive social environment are crucial to an individual's mental health, and to a child’s development. When they’re in positive social environments with caring parents’ children build resilience to stress and learn important coping skills. In conflict zones and extremist milieus however, stress becomes “unmanageable, extreme, and frequent in a way that it ‘results in prolonged activation of the stress response”, culminating in what’s called toxic stress (Koehler, 2020). It is very difficult for children to recover from these environmental effects. Toxic stressors ought to be considered a priority in peacebuilding, as examples of toxic stress, like poverty, exposure to violence, household dysfunction, food scarcity, and abuse, are also important determinants of community vulnerability and resilience. Toxic stressors have the capacity to alter the brain development of children. Exposure to toxic stress, especially during childhood and adolescence, can have deeply embedded effects in a child’s neurobiology, negatively impacting long-term cognition, emotional health, and behavior.
Mental Health Interventions
Exposure to violent-conflict can induce and/or aggravate mental health problems. One study estimates that around 354 million adults who have experienced war between 1989 and 2015, suffer from PTSD or major depression. Studies on violent extremism have identified numerous important mental health signs, like early childhood risk factors, anger, behavior problems, and extremist participation as a coping strategy. Interventions should use these signs as a way to undertake risk assessments for individuals and communities. Exposure to violence exposes people to toxic stressors.
The importance of the intersection between mental health and peacebuilding lends empirical support for methods focusing on family support and pro-social networks. In cases of some children however, families may be perpetrators, adding an additional layer of difficulty and trauma to the equation. In some instances, children may have to be separated from abusive parents. It would facilitate the rehabilitation and reintegration of children if child-care workers were trained in trauma first response, building the capacity and accessibility of trauma-informed care. More generally, interventions cannot ignore or diminish the importance of the intervention environment. The political and social context that interventions take place within is crucial. Mental health initiatives ought to center reform, healing, and community resilience in peacebuilding and PVE. Other key intervention elements center around context-specificity in programming and vulnerable demographics, like prisoners, marginalized groups, women, and youth.