Extremism Researchers Struggle With The Mental Toll Of Their Work Day after day, researchers are immersed in the propaganda of ISIS and neo-Nazi factions. But there's almost no discussion of the mental toll of examining the world's most dangerous extremists.
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'It Gets To You.' Extremism Researchers Confront The Unseen Toll Of Their Work

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'It Gets To You.' Extremism Researchers Confront The Unseen Toll Of Their Work

'It Gets To You.' Extremism Researchers Confront The Unseen Toll Of Their Work

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Fighting the world's most dangerous extremists starts with understanding how they operate. Day after day, researchers are immersed in the stomach-turning propaganda of groups like ISIS or neo-Nazi factions. It's stuff you can't unsee, can't even really describe on the radio. And yet, there's almost no discussion of the psychological toll this takes. As NPR's Hannah Allam reports, there's now a push to change that.

HANNAH ALLAM, BYLINE: A star researcher at George Washington University, Seamus Hughes is known for digging through court filings to find important terrorism cases. What's less known about Hughes is why he began working on the documents side of his field. The truth - he was sick of watching the ISIS videos.

SEAMUS HUGHES: (Laughter) Yeah, I mean, it's actually the main reason why. It really just was to clear my mind.

ALLAM: After years of studying violent jihadists, Hughes says his brain was crammed with their slogans and pictures. One that haunts him is of a kid posing as a sniper for ISIS. Hughes is a father of two with another on the way. That photo of the boy with a rifle, he says, messed him up.

HUGHES: I mean, this is the type of thing that nobody really talks about in the field, right? Or if they do, they talk about it in whispers after a few drinks at a conference. You know, you look at violent imagery all day, and it gets to you. And you want to tell yourself it doesn't, but it does.

ALLAM: Extremism researchers list several reasons for the culture of silence around the mental stress of their jobs. There's guilt about complaining from an ivory tower. There is detachment as harmful content is reduced to data. And then there's the pace.

CHLOE COLLIVER: In the past few years, the sector has grown so quickly and the problem has evolved so fast that maybe there's not been a pause point for people to sit back and think, oh, wow; we've been doing this for a few years now without considering the effect on our mental health.

ALLAM: Chloe Colliver is based in London at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. It's among a handful of institutions now taking steps to raise awareness about the mental toll of their work. Some places are making counselors available. Others are restricting the time researchers spend with extremist material. Colliver says she knows from experience the value in just talking about it.

COLLIVER: From my standpoint, it's because I look at my colleagues and myself, and I see slightly angrier, more cynical people than I saw a year ago or two years ago. And that makes me sad. And I think a lot of it has to do with having to, day in and day out, face up to the worst of humanity.

ELANA NEWMAN: We know that people who spend a lot of time steeped in this stuff have reactions that make them hypersensitive to danger, make them more worried and afraid.

ALLAM: That's Elana Newman, a University of Tulsa psychology professor who studies the effects of trauma. She says there's growing recognition of what's known as vicarious trauma, the violence experienced secondhand by law enforcement, journalists, academics. Many of those affected say they're ashamed to admit they're struggling.

NEWMAN: When you see a dangerous thing happening - it doesn't matter if you're part of it or not - you are actually - your body is experiencing the danger, and that's evolutionarily important. It's like, oh, there's danger out there. I've got to, like, respond to it.

ALLAM: Newman says researchers should remember that the nightmares, the anxiety, the stress the images cause aren't signs of weakness. It's just part of being human.

NEWMAN: It's really important to not feel ashamed or stigmatized because you're having a natural response to seeing awful things.

ALLAM: Alex DiBranco works with those awful things on a daily basis. She's a Ph.D. candidate at Yale whose research topics include the misogynistic incel movement. DiBranco says mental health resources for students are scarce or hard to access, so she's had to come up with her own ways to cope.

ALEX DIBRANCO: I just can't sit for an eight-hour work day and read misogynist rhetoric nonstop, so I have a little bit of a system for giving myself a break after each really appalling thing that I read.

ALLAM: That system involves regular breaks to go blast some bad guys in a video game.

DIBRANCO: You are the good guys, and you feel accomplished. You finish quests. You're - (laughter) you're defeating evil.

ALLAM: DiBranco says it's about escapism. And until institutions talk frankly about the mental health of their researchers, she says, a little escape is as good as it gets.

Hannah Allam, NPR News.

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