Young teens suspected to have become radicalised should be referred by police and security agencies to mental health experts in an attempt to steer them away from violence, a leading western Sydney psychiatrist says.
Chris Tennant, director of child and adolescent mental health for western Sydney, said young people at risk of radicalisation towards violent extremism should be referred to experts who could not only try to lead them to a healthier path, but learn from them more about their thinking.
“Obviously police need to keep them under surveillance but I can’t see why mental health professionals are not also involved in dealing with what are a small number of individuals,” he said.
“More than anything, we could learn from these kids … and maybe we could bring them in and start turning them.”
Professor Tennant’s call for the involvement of mental health experts comes amid revelations a 12-year-old boy from western Sydney had become the nation’s youngest terror suspect and authorities had never been in contact with his mother to discuss what could be done to help him.
There are now 140 people in Australia whose passports have been cancelled or refused, and 30 people believed to have returned from fighting with foreign insurgents. Security agencies are believed to have another 400 high-priority security cases.
Professor Tennant said instead of just putting young teens and pre-teens under surveillance and waiting “until the edge of a violent act”, it would be better to try to prevent such activity altogether.
“If police are suspicious about them, we should try and head them off at the pass a whole lot earlier in the process,” he said.
Professor Tennant said such an approach could help to improve relations between law enforcement agencies and the Muslim community, and encourage more people to report concerning behaviour, because it would be about helping youth rather than just prosecuting them.
He said while teenagers who became radicalised might not be suffering from a mental illness, they were likely to be victims of psychological abuse or manipulation. “While they may be contemplating serious crimes, they don’t see the wideranging consequences of their actions because they’re so young and immature.
“The younger the child, the more vulnerable they are … They don’t have the skills to understand the magnitude of what they’re doing.”
Professor Tennant said this was “a tiny numerical problem but a problem of huge magnitude to us all”.
Very few mental health professionals had specific expertise in dealing with children and adolescents who became radicalised, he said. “We are just beginning to confront this terrible, new problem — nobody yet is trained in understanding it.”
He said there was a need for more mental health experts to be trained in this area.
The federal government last year announced $630 million for security and intelligence agencies to tackle homegrown terrorism and $545m for community cohesion programs.
Only $13.4m has been allocated for targeted measures to prevent violent extremism.
This article first appeared on ‘The Australian’ on 26 October 2015.