People who identify as incels (involuntary celibates) have higher rates of self-reported mental health disorders compared to the general male population, according to new research published in Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression. Despite their elevated psychiatric symptoms, however, the study indicates that incels also tend to be distrustful of mental health professionals.
Incels are a subculture of mostly young men who feel frustrated because they are unable to form romantic or sexual relationships. While most incels do not engage in violence, some discussions within the community involve suicide, self-harm, and admiration for violent acts committed by others in the name of inceldom. The ideology of incels has been linked to several mass murders and deaths since 2014.
The authors behind the new study were interested in better understanding the mental health of incels. This could help to identify effective mental health interventions that address the unique challenges faced by incels and potentially reduce the risks of self-harm and violent radicalization.
“We were interested in learning more about involuntary celibates [incels] given the increasing frequency with which they have been mentioned in the media and popular culture,” explained study author Molly Ellenberg, a research fellow at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Maryland.
“With much research surrounding the psychology of radicalization, there is a lot of sensationalizing, as well as a lot of speculation regarding whether individuals who commit horrible crimes in the name of a given ideology are ‘crazy.’ There is extensive research showing that most people who commit acts of terrorism do not have diagnosed psychological disorders, though the rate of such diagnoses may be higher among lone actors as compared to group-based terrorists.”
“The purpose of this study was to examine the rates of psychological symptoms and self-reported diagnoses among self-described incels not only because some self-described incels have been involved in misogynist criminal behavior, but because the population is quite large, characterized by loneliness and isolation, and interacts mostly with one another online, making them potentially susceptible to extreme ideologies and justifications for violence against themselves and others.”
To gather data, the researchers designed a survey using Google Forms. They collaborated with the owner of a large incel forum and engaged in preliminary interactions with some incels to gain insights into the community’s experiences and concerns. They also reviewed existing literature on inceldom and mental health.
The survey consisted of 68 questions covering various topics. These included participants’ social lives, personal experiences, adherence to incel ideology, perspectives on incel-related violence, endorsement of violent actions, demographic information, and perceived psychological traits and symptoms.
The survey was distributed to active members of the incel forum by the owner, inviting adult forum members who self-identified as incels to participate. It was available online from December 7, 2020, to January 2, 2021. Participants were required to provide informed consent before completing the survey. The final sample included 272 individuals.
The findings of the study indicate that the participants reported significantly higher rates of mental health diagnoses compared to the global rates reported by the World Health Organization (WHO). For example, while 3.6 percent of men globally have been diagnosed with major depressive disorder, 38.6 percent of the survey respondents reported a depression diagnosis.
Similarly, 2.6 percent of men have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, but 37.13 percent of the survey respondents endorsed having a formal anxiety diagnosis. The prevalence of autism spectrum disorder among the respondents was 18.38 percent, compared to a global prevalence rate of 0.62 percent.
A significant percentage of participants also reported suicidal ideations and symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder, and symptoms of bipolar disorder, and substance abuse.
Interestingly, the participants expressed a desire for help in areas such as improving their looks, social skills, and maximizing their attractiveness. However, they showed skepticism towards traditional mental health therapy and believed that their challenges were primarily physical rather than psychological.
Approximately half of the participants (51.5 percent) in the study had tried therapy. However, their experiences with therapy were not positive. Only 10.7 percent of those who tried therapy felt better, while the majority (64.3 percent) felt no change, and 25 percent felt worse. More than half (51.1 percent) felt that professionals blamed them for their inceldom without understanding the societal factors involved.
“We hope that the average person learns from our research about the complex combination of psychiatric symptoms which self-described incels feel they are experiencing, as well as their perception that they cannot be helped by mental health professionals,” Ellenberg told PsyPost. “A small but meaningful minority of self-described incels do hold violent extremist beliefs and that should not be ignored.”
“At the same time, this population seems to be experiencing elevated rates of depression, self-harm, and suicidal ideation, among other symptoms, and they are mistrustful of mental health professionals. This means that they are really seeking help only from other incels, who may encourage self-harm, suicide, or acts of violence against others as a means of coping with their struggles.”
The survey participants coped with their challenges by participating in incel web forums, which was the most frequently reported coping strategy. However, the findings also indicated that participation in these forums without professional support may have negative effects on the participants’ mental health, as it was associated with increased depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, and self-harm. Other common coping strategies included engaging in media entertainment like video games, consuming pornography, using social media, and turning to food.
“We were not necessarily surprised by any of the findings from this study, but rather struck by how many of these mostly young men seemed to be potentially receptive to psychological treatment if they felt that they would not be blamed for their circumstances,” Ellenberg said. “Of course, it is important to address false and dangerous beliefs that blame women or Western society generally for one’s loneliness and experiences of rejection, but this study should also make clear that violence is not an inevitable part of the incel experience, and that effective mental health treatment, potentially delivered online, could be immensely helpful to many of the people in this community.”
But the study, like all research, includes some limitations. For example, the mental health challenges and diagnoses were self-reported by the participants, not measured through validated assessments.
“The major caveat is that all of these symptoms and disorders were self-reported by the respondents, not measured using psychometrically validated scales,” Ellenberg explained. “So, none of the results should be considered prevalence rates of actual symptoms, but rather a reflection of what the respondents feel that they are experiencing, based on their own understanding of what those symptoms are.”
“We asked these in this way, rather than using psychometrically validated scales, because we knew that this community is mistrustful of mental health professionals, but those scales would provide more objective symptoms and diagnosis rates than what is presented in our article.”
“If people are interested in learning more about the differences between self-described incels who hold violent ideologies and those who do not, they can see our new paper: https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2023-77261-001,” the researcher added.
The study, “Self-reported psychiatric disorder and perceived psychological symptom rates among involuntary celibates (incels) and their perceptions of mental health treatment“, was authored by Anne Speckhard and Molly Ellenberg.