How to Actually Help People Who Are Losing Their Grip on Reality

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Radicalization is a social phenomenon, rather than the failure of an individual.

Recently, I have heard from multiple friends who are concerned about family, friends or other loved ones who seem to be losing their grip on reality and falling into conspiracy thinking or other destructive online communities.

As someone who studies this closely, I believe radicalization is accelerating right now. Some conspiracy communities (such as QAnon) have created powerful incentives for participation and can take people from first exposure to a break with reality in a matter of just a few weeks. This is not something to brush off.

For those of you left in the position of wanting to help but are not sure what to do, it is useful to first understand the problem: it is not a “beliefs” problem but a social problem. People get pulled into these communities because they feel alienated, and are looking for sense-making and connection. It is often driven by an overwhelming fear that “we aren’t being told the truth,” and the feelings of having been deceived that come with that. That tends to be a powerful driver of radicalization and can quickly re-wire people’s social landscape.

Individuals become enmeshed in this new world of fake truth-tellers and movements that seem to provide connection and identity, but these relationships are not real: anything requiring actual time or money is out of reach for this fake network of support. Family and longtime friends, by contrast, are real and persist. The challenge comes when people begin to confuse this new identity with their “old” one.

The worst thing you can do to someone who has been pulled into these networks is to attack them, or focus too much on correcting their false “beliefs.” The ideas are secondary artifacts of the social pathology.

Instead, it is necessary to aid them in minimizing their connection to the destructive network while bolstering their ties to their “real world” support network. This can be done by asking open-ended, respectful questions, and leaving space for answers. “You seem to have really changed your thinking a lot lately. Can you tell me more about what’s behind that?” or “Wow, I’ve never heard that point of view until now. Are you sure that’s really true?”

Simultaneously, it is a good idea to reinforce ties to positive, stable life relationships. Maybe suggest a family outing, or find some way to spend more time with the person, away from online communities. Maybe suggest new hobbies or otherwise distance from destructive content channels, whether internet, tv, or radio. Help them find new patterns and habits, and always with love.

To be clear I am not a clinical expert on this; I just study radicalization behavior. But as part of that I have been working this year with Steven Hassan, who is one of the top experts on this topic in general and on cults in particular, and I have squared his work with my own studies and with other experts in the field. So I am echoing many of his ideas here. For more on this topic I am recommending his book “Freedom of Mind” as well as his website “freedomofmind.com.” (To be clear, these resources are intended for you, not the person undergoing radicalization.)

Americans in particular have a hard time with the relationship between individual and community. We mostly think in individual terms; if someone is acting strange, they have “mental health” problems and need “therapy” or drugs. And certainly therapy is an invaluable resource for all of us, and is frequently called for as part of helping people recover from undue influence.

But it is also important to understand that many kinds of individual pathologies are social in nature. We are the average of the people around us; so disrupted social ties can lead to disruptions in ourselves and in our outlook. We must properly understand online radicalization and conspiracy theories within this framework. People are falling into believing crazy ideas not because they are stupid, mentally ill, or because they lack critical thinking capacity or intellect. They are manifesting a lack of strong social connection, which in turn is born of a desire for meaning, connection, and identity.

If we focus on providing those core human needs then we address conspiracy radicalization at the same time. Our culture and social structures do not do a great job at meeting those needs, so it’s not surprising that in this time of massive uncertainty we are seeing a spike in radicalization. And many people are suffering from various kinds of trauma as well.

Please treat your friends and loved ones with care, help knit them better into normative social fabrics, and ramp down destructive channels. This will work far better than arguing with them or trying to “fix” their false statements. That will just make them dig in further, and will work against you. Consider also doing this in person or by video/phone, and off of social media, as online dynamics can often be counterproductive and destructive.

Please feel free to share this with anyone you think may benefit. Every situation is a bit different, so seek professional help as needed, but I do hope that having a little better understanding of the nature of the problem will be useful. Stay safe and healthy, everyone!

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