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Self-reported psychiatric disorder and perceived psychological symptom rates among involuntary celibates (incels) and their perceptions of mental health treatment

This is an Accepted Manuscript of an article published by Taylor & Francis in Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression, available online: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/19434472.2022.2029933

By Anne Speckhard and Molly Ellenberg

ABSTRACT

This study explores the prevalence of self-reported formal diagnoses and informally identified symptoms of psychological challenges among involuntary celibates (incels). Incels are increasingly becoming a topic of research, primarily focused on their potential for violence. However, there has not been a large study of the mental health antecedents to and results of inceldom, nor has there been extensive investigation of potential psychosocial interventions for incels. This study of 272 self-identified incels found a higher self-reported prevalence of formal psychological diagnoses than in the general population. Some diagnoses and associated symptoms, like depression and anxiety, may be the result of repeated rejection by potential partners, but others, namely autism spectrum disorder, are antecedent to inceldom and may actually contribute to an individual’s difficulties in establishing sexual and romantic relationships. Despite the high self-reported prevalence of these psychosocial challenges, this study found that self-identified incels are resistant to seeking or accepting mental health treatment, often because they perceive that practitioners will blame them for their inceldom, rather than societal forces such as ‘lookism.’ The results indicate that online forums may be effective mediums for providing or advertising non-judgmental mental health treatment and exploring creative ways of helping incels achieve a better quality of life.

Involuntary celibates (incels) are predominately young men who congregate online in various outlets to ‘assail what they believe are the social injustices wrought by genetic determinism and female preferences that have relegated them to the margins of society’ (Hoffman et al., 2020). The incel ideology can be tied to the concept of the ‘blackpill,’ which is an outgrowth of the ‘redpill’ ideology posited by the alt-right online. Both terms are derived from the movie, The Matrix, in which the main character is given the choice between remaining ignorant and blissful (taking the blue pill) or waking up to the harsh realities of the world (taking the red pill). When incels ascribe to having taken the blackpill, they believe that women are selfish and have the unfair advantage always being able to get sex when they want it because Western society and feminism have been more favorable to women than to men. As a result, they believe that feminism has put men who are not physically attractive by mainstream standards, of high social status, and wealthy, at a disadvantage in this regard. Further, they believe that the social hierarchy of which they became aware after being ‘blackpilled’ is immutable and inescapable. Their social loneliness should therefore be blamed on women they view as selfish and hateful who they believe would rather be with a tall, muscular man with a chiseled jawline who treats them poorly than a nice, smart, funny, but possibly socially awkward or less good looking guy who does not meet society’s standards of eligibility for romance and sex (Speckhard et al., 2021).The incel online subculture has grown over recent years on the fringes of the internet. While the overwhelming majority of incels do not carry out violence, community members frequently discuss suicide and self-harm, some laud the violent actions of others in the name of inceldom, and the community’s fatalist ideology has been connected to at least 6 mass murders and 44 deaths since 2014 (Romano, 2018; ADL, n.d.). The present research documents a high prevalence of self-reported mental illness alongside a reticence to mental health treatment and negative experiences in such within the online incel community. The risks associated with mentally unbalanced individuals, including incels, particularly in reference to their potential for violence are complex and manifold. Moreover, as incels are increasingly subject to law enforcement and counter-extremism scrutiny in regard to their potential for violence, and with research showing higher rates of mental illness amongst lone actor terrorists than other violent actors, understanding the nexus between inceldom and mental health (and with regard to lonely, sexually frustrated young men in general) as it might relate to the potential for violence while exploring the prospects of potentially effective mental health-related interventions is vital (Gruenewald et al., 2013). It is important to note, of course, that people with mental illness are far more likely to be victims of crimes than to commit violence themselves (Maniglio, 2009). Thus, an examination of the psychopathology of incels should not be misinterpreted as an implication that psychopathology is the cause of incel-related violence or that incels are even at great risk for carrying out terroristic violence.While incels hold a variety of beliefs about the reasons for their circumstances, many in the community believe that they are involuntarily celibate due to being what they self-define as ugly while living in a ‘lookist’ society which discriminates against men lacking in conventional attractiveness, money, power, and/or charm. In a society in which dating often originates online, lookism lends a common narrative that places the blame outward on an ‘incelophobic’ society and thereby engenders a subculture that grants incels an appropriate target for their negative emotions and anger over being rejected as dating partners. (Rummelhoff, 2020). These men feel aggrieved by the contemporary social milieu, wherein both men and women are marrying later in life, with many engaging in sexual relationships prior to marriage, leaving those men who don’t manage to succeed in establishing such relationships behind in inceldom (Horowitz et al., 2019). Many incels, feeling undesired as a result of their failure to engage in sexual or romantic relationships, band together on online forums where they discuss their animosity toward the women who reject them and share their resentment toward the so-called alpha males whom they claim that women favor. While the community remains under-researched, there has been much inquiry as of late into the risk that incels may pose to themselves and to the public (Speckhard et al., 2021). While some studies have narrowed in on high profile incel-linked attackers and focused their research on analysis of online posts regarding violent ideation and misogynistic expressions, others have highlighted that the majority of incels do not endorse violence at all (Baele et al., 2019; Hoffman et al., 2020).This research has not considered, however, that for these men, their status as incel, as in failure to succeed in relationships and subsequent animosity toward women may stem, at least in part, from hatred toward themselves. Their anger may be a manifestation of their sexual frustration, feelings of hopelessness, and depression, inability to master online and face-to-face dating, or a combination of similar sentiments. Some of these challenges, such as depression, may be exacerbated by or even be the result of their inceldom, while others, such as autism spectrum disorder, may cause difficulties in social interactions that contribute to their perceived and actual inability to engage in the precursors to establishing sexual or romantic relationships. This frustration and possible self-hatred may then also be projected outwards onto others, effectively externalizing blame for one’s own failures onto others.Incels may thus experience a slew of psychological processes that can be interpreted through a securitized lens and also viewed as risk indicators for radicalization into violent extremism. Indeed, the forgoing explanation of the incel ideology and the blackpill easily maps on to Borum’s four-stage model of the terrorist mindset: Grievance, injustice, target attribution, and distancing/devaluation (2011). The explanation similarly fits with other models of radicalization which hold that individuals join a particular terrorist or violent extremist group because they have needs that are filled or explained by the narrative or ideology that is supported by a respected social network (Kruglanski et al., 2019; Speckhard, 2016). For incels, the unmet need to feel romantically desired and loved is explained by the blackpill ideology and supported by their online network.However, an interpretation of these psychosocial processes which focuses less on interdiction and more on prevention and remediation might offer an opportunity to identify creative mechanisms to address the grievances and challenges of this community. As has been seen in the short history of countering violent extremism, securitization of communities that already feel marginalized can increase feelings of isolation and alienation, fuel anger and feelings of grievance, and thus make such individuals more vulnerable to radicalization to violence (Barbari, 2018). The incel community, aside from being associated with violent extremism academically, has also been subject to securitization as of late. For instance, regardless of whether the Canadian government’s decision to charge a self-identified incel who murdered 10 people with a van with terrorism charges was the correct step, there is no doubt that such a label could cause incels to coalesce even more around their shared grievance, feeling all the more marginalized from mainstream society (Speckhard & Ellenberg, 2021). As such, it is important to explore whether incels have psychological issues worth addressing and, if so, whether psychological challenges common to incels may be identified and addressed in order to improve the quality of their lives, help them to overcome difficulties in dating, and reduce the risks of self-harm and susceptibility to violent radicalization.

The present study

The present study utilizes the data from the largest-ever comprehensive survey of self-identified incels (n = 272) to explore the prevalence of self-reported diagnoses and perceived symptoms of depression, anxiety, autism, posttraumatic stress disorder, alcohol use disorder, substance use disorder, suicidal ideation, and self-harm. Moreover, the present study examines incels’ experiences with and views toward mental health support, their thoughts about what might improve the quality of their lives, and what behaviors and strategies they currently use to cope with the psychological challenges associated with their inceldom.

Method

This study utilized a Google Forms survey that was designed by the research team after study of the forum and inceldom, as well as in-depth preliminary interactions with some incels and the owner of a large incel forum. These preliminary discussions, as well as a thorough review of the relevant literature as referenced above, all contributed to the survey design. The researchers compiled questions of interest that had not yet been studied in detail in the previous literature regarding mental health, life experiences, and experiences on the forum, in addition to questions about inceldom specifically, such as those related to belief in the blackpill and associated ideas surrounding feminism, dating, and romance. The owner of the forum subsequently provided feedback about how questions might be perceived or interpreted by incels, suggesting changes to the verbiage and to the order of the questions. The verbiage on a number of the demographic questions and questions about forum usage was changed to keep them consistent with a number of other surveys run by the forum owner that were previously posted on the forum. The survey was sent out to active members of the same large incel forum by the owner with an invitation for adult forum members who self-identify as incels to participate. The online survey was kept open from 7 December 2020, to 2 January 2021. Before completing the survey, all participants electronically indicated their informed consent. The informed consent document stated that the survey was being conducted by Light Upon Light, an organization that was briefly a part of the authors’ organization. It also indicated the purposes of the survey, limited participants to those over age 18, identified the non-profit think tank running the survey, and gave assurances that it would be completely anonymous. After completing the survey, participants were given the option to enter their email address for the chance to win a monetary prize (there were five prizes: Two of 100 dollars, two of 50 dollars, and one computer game). The researchers removed their email addresses from the exported data before they analyzed any of the data, thus de-identifying the data. Participants were informed that they could choose to skip any question, quit the survey at any time, or not participate at all. They were also warned that some questions were emotionally charged and that they might experience some distress while answering them. They were provided with a link to the Samaritans, an organization with a number of different helplines to provide emotional support if needed. They were also given an email address that they could use to contact the researchers.The survey itself included 68 questions in a variety of formats (multiple choice, checklists, short and long answer) covering a wide array of topics, ranging from participants’ social lives and personal experiences, their adherence to various facets of the incel ideology, their perspectives regarding incel-related violence, endorsement of those incels who have carried out violent actions and the debate over whether incels should be considered violent extremists, and demographic information. They were also asked about their perceived psychological traits and symptoms, as well as their experiences with mental health professionals. These psychological traits were measured simply, by asking participants to indicate the intensity to which they experienced the following: Depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress, autism spectrum traits, and suicidal ideation. They were also asked to indicate the frequency with which they self-harmed or abused alcohol or drugs. They were also asked to report whether they had ever been formally diagnosed with a depressive disorder, an anxiety disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, autism spectrum disorder, and alcohol and substance use disorders. No psychometrically validated measures of the symptoms were used, as a review of the forum prior to designing the survey suggested that the target population would not be willing to complete formal measures, given their cynicism regarding mental health assessment and treatment. Posts on the forum regularly referred to therapy as a ‘scam’ or form of social control and to therapists using misogynistic and antisemitic terminology. Thus, the participants’ responses should be interpreted as their perceived psychological symptoms based on their own understanding of the disorders and symptoms described versus standardized measures of these disorders and symptoms. The survey questions are presented in the Appendix.The data were collected using Google Forms, which provides results in Google Sheets or comma-separated values [.csv] format. The.csv data were subsequently imported into IBM SPSS Statistics Version 26, where it was quantitatively analyzed. The researchers used descriptive analyses as well as backward linear regression to analyze the data, using a p-value of 0.05 to gauge significance.The researchers are part of a small, independent, non-profit think tank with an internal Institutional Review Board [IRB], modeled after the first author’s previous experience with the RAND Corporation’s IRB. This process addressed all relevant concerns for conducting research with human subjects. First, the researchers ensured that the informed consent document was clear and detailed the risks and benefits of participating in the study. Risks included temporary emotional distress as a result of being asked about past life experiences and current psychological symptoms. This risk was mitigated by providing information about online mental health resources that the owner of the forum identified as being empathetic toward incels. Participation in the study did not require the participants to provide any personal identifiable information, but the participants did have the option to provide their email address if they wanted the chance to win a monetary prize. As described above, email addresses were removed from the data prior to analysis, thus limiting the risk of a breach of confidentiality. Confidentiality was also protected by analyzing the data on a password-protected, personal computer. Direct benefits included the opportunity to win a monetary prize, as previously described. Indirect benefits included the opportunity to educate the public about incels from their own point of view and to provide their thoughts on various incel-related issues to a broader audience. The researchers excluded all respondents under the age of 18 and ensured that all relevant national and international laws and standards were followed, as many of the participants did not reside in the United States.

Participants

In total, 312 people from the forum responded to the survey. Of those 312, 5.8 percent (n = 18) said that they did not identify as incel, and 8.0 percent (n = 25) said that they were under 18, even though they agreed to the informed consent procedure which clearly stated that participants needed to be 18 years old in order to complete the survey. All of these aforementioned participants were therefore excluded from the data analysis in order to confidently state that the sample (n = 272) is comprised of self-identified incels who are 18 or older.Of the 272 respondents included in the sample, 271 stated that they were male, and one declined to state their gender. Therefore, the results do not require any disaggregation by gender. The sample was demographically diverse on a variety of fronts. Ethnically, 53.3 percent were White/Caucasian (not Middle Eastern or Hispanic), 9.6 percent were Black or African American, 7.0 percent were Middle Eastern, 7.0 percent were Hispanic, 5.1 percent were Asian (not including Indian), 5.1 percent were Indian, and 12.9 percent were another ethnicity or were not sure of their ethnicity.The respondents resided all over the world, with the majority living in the developed world, including 32.4 percent residing in Western Europe, 30.9 percent residing in North America, 14.3 percent residing in Eastern Europe, 9.9 percent residing in Asia, 7.7 percent residing in Central or South America, 2.2 percent residing in Africa, and 2.2 percent residing in Oceania. They were also religiously diverse: 35.7 percent were atheist; 25.4 percent were agnostic; 19.1 percent were Christian; 5.1 percent were Muslim; 4.0 percent were Hindu, Buddhist, or Taoist; and 1.5 percent were Jewish. Twenty-four participants (8.8 percent) said they were another religion, and one declined to state his religion.While the entered age range was 0–69, it is likely that the true age range of the participants was 18–52. Given the sexually suggestive connotation of the number 69 among this population and the fact that no ages between 52 and 69 were entered, it is likely that the participant who entered his age as 69 did so in jest and is not actually 69 years old.

Results

For nearly every disorder about which the survey inquired, the respondents reported an official diagnosis, i.e. stating they had been formally diagnosed by a mental health professional, at a notably higher rate than that reported for male adults in by the World Health Organization [WHO] (2017). Whereas 3.6 percent of men globally have been diagnosed with major depressive disorder, 38.6 percent of the incel survey respondents reported a depression diagnosis, albeit a nonspecific one. A more similar cohort, millennials who are active on social media, were found to experience major depressive disorder at a rate of 16.3 percent – less than half of the proportion of the survey respondents who reported a depression diagnosis (Robinson et al., 2019). Even more starkly, 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. Furthermore, whereas the median estimated global prevalence of autism spectrum disorder is 0.62 percent (Elsabbagh et al., 2012), 18.38 percent of the survey respondents reported such a diagnosis. These three diagnoses, depression, anxiety, and autism were the most prevalent among the survey respondents and also had the greatest difference between the prevalence rate among the survey respondents and the rate reported by the WHO.The respondents also reported higher than average rates of diagnosed bipolar disorder (4.04 percent compared with a 0.6 percent global prevalence of bipolar disorder among men (Ferrari et al., 2016)), and alcohol and substance use disorders (4.04 percent of respondents for each of the two disorders, compared with a global alcohol and substance use disorder prevalence of 2.4 percent for men (Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, 2017)). The only disorder about which the survey inquired for which the respondents reported a lower prevalence rate than the global rate was alcohol use disorder. The self-reported prevalence of diagnosed posttraumatic stress disorder among respondents was 5.88 percent, whereas WHO estimates range from zero to more than six percent, placing them on the higher end of the range of global prevalence (Kessler & Üstün, 2008).The rates of self-reported symptoms related to the aforementioned disorders were even higher, demonstrating a prevalence of perceived psychosocial challenges beyond those formally diagnosed. Participants’ rates of symptom severity are presented in Figures 1 through 7. Counting scores of four or five on a Likert scale from one to five as ‘present,’ 64.3 percent of participants reported the presence of depressive symptoms, 59.6 percent reported the presence of anxiety symptoms, 47.8 percent reported the presence of suicidal ideations (compared with 3.8 percent of millennials in a large, nationally representative study of American adolescents and adults, Twenge et al., 2019), 27.9 percent reported the presence of symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder, and 24.6 percent reported the presence of symptoms of autism spectrum disorder. Moreover, 41.2 percent of participants reported ever engaging in drug or alcohol abuse (rated as two or greater) and 33.5 percent of participants reported ever engaging in self-harming behaviors (rated as two or greater).

Figure 1. Frequency of reported depression severity.

Figure 2. Frequency of reported autism feature/symptom severity.

Figure 3. Frequency of reported PTSD severity.

Figure 4. Frequency of reported anxiety severity.

Figure 5. Frequency of reported self-harm severity.

Figure 6. Frequency of reported drug/alcohol abuse severity.

Figure 7. Frequency of reported suicidal ideation severity.

Figure 9. Extent to which participants want help with their physical appearance.

Figure 10. Extent to which participants want plastic surgery to improve their physical appearance.

Figure 11. Extent to which participants want help with their social skills.

Some of these psychological symptoms and challenges, such as depression and anxiety, for instance, may be attributed to being repeatedly rejected as a sexual or romantic partner, and therefore be viewed as a result of inceldom. The survey data does not allow for the distinction between symptoms and disorders which preceded the respondents’ inceldom. However, many of the psychological issues, such as autism spectrum disorder, cannot be attributed to experiences as an incel. Rather, many of them would likely contribute to an individual’s difficulties in attracting a partner, thus creating a downward spiral wherein the individual believes that he cannot engage in sexual and/or romantic relationships because of his psychological symptoms, which become more pronounced due to his experiences as an incel and, in some cases, participation on incel forums which may reinforce his beliefs.Given that much of the shared grievance among the incel community revolves around a perceived and potentially real inability to find a romantic or sexual partner, participants were also asked whether or not they would date themselves. The participants were nearly split in their responses, with 43.0 percent saying that they would date themselves. Some literature suggests that many people prefer partners who are unlike themselves (complementarity rather than homophily), but this generally refers to the idea that ‘opposites attract’ (Dijkstra & Barelds, 2008; Dryer & Horowitz, 1997). In the case of the respondents, however, some of the participants severely criticized themselves and indicated that they believed there was a causal relationship between their psychological challenges and physical unattractiveness and their inceldom. None of the respondents wrote that they would not date themselves simply because they are attracted to partners with complementary characteristics to them. Rather, some attributed their inceldom to their autism spectrum traits, likely referring to difficulty in social interactions. One responded that he would not date himself ‘Because I have Asperger’s syndrome and a big nose.’ Another respondent, lamenting both his physical appearance as well as personality-related psychopathology, wrote, ‘I have no jaw. I’m norwooding [balding]. I have a tiny dick. Side profile is that of a clown. I’m autistic. Schizoid personality disorder.’ Similarly, one wrote, ‘I’m just a regular guy who is socially autistic and sub-human looking.’ Still another respondent wrote, ‘I’m too autistic for any normal person to even relate to.’ Other respondents were more general, explaining that they would not date themselves because ‘I am bad. Very bad. I have mental problems,’ and ‘I’m not mentally healthy.’ One respondent wrote, ‘I’m insanely ugly, with multiple mental problems. Am also poor and uneducated.’ Finally, other respondents did not describe themselves as mentally ill but did express that they would not date themselves because of specific psychological challenges. For example, one wrote, ‘I am emotionally detached and unavailable to a severe degree.’ Another wrote, ‘I am really avoidant.’Beyond these comments regarding their psychological symptoms, many of the respondents wrote about perceived physical defects as reasons that they would not date themselves, as were also mentioned alongside the psychological reasons. In and of itself, this focus on physical appearance is unsurprising, especially given the participants’ beliefs that they do not need therapy, but rather, improved attractiveness, in order to improve their lives, as was also revealed in the survey results, as will be discussed further on in this article. It is particularly interesting, however, that many of the men’s perceived physical defects were related to traditionally masculine traits, such as being tall and muscular and having a strong jawbone and a full head of hair, which they believed were reasons women would not date them.In terms of inceldom being a source, rather than or in addition to an antecedent, of mental health issues, the extent to which respondents believed that being in a sexual relationship would improve their quality of life, which may be interpreted as the extent to which they feel that their inability to engage in sexual relationships and fulfill traditional gender roles is distressing, was significantly positively, albeit weakly, correlated with self-reported intensity of depression (Spearman’s rho = 0.164, p < 0.01) as well as self-reported intensity of suicidal thoughts (Spearman’s rho = 0.126, p < 0.05). Belief that being in a sexual relationship would improve their quality of life was also significantly negatively, albeit weakly, correlated with self-reported frequency of drug and alcohol abuse (Spearman’s rho = −0.123, p < 0.05).

Perceptions of mental health treatment

Despite such a clear presence of psychological symptoms and challenges, either contributing to their inceldom or caused by it, participants made clear that they did not believe that they could be helped by mental health professionals. Just over half of the participants (51.5 percent) reported that they had tried therapy, and it was clear from their experiences, which are discussed and shared on the forum, why others within their community might not want to engage in therapy themselves. Of those participants who had tried therapy, only 10.7 percent said that therapy made them feel better. The majority of those who had tried therapy (64.3 percent) reported no change in their feelings, and exactly one quarter said that therapy made them feel worse. The participants generally differed in their experiences with mental health professionals, with 51.1 percent agreeing (rating as three or greater) that they felt that mental health professionals had blamed them, rather than systemic societal aspects over which they have no control, such as the greater freedoms women enjoy with the advent of feminism, the visual dominance involved in online dating, and ‘lookist’ societal values, for their inceldom. The distribution of the extent to which the participants agreed with that statement is presented in Figure 8.

Figure 8. Extent to which participants who tried therapy felt that therapists blamed them.

The reasons that participants gave for not wanting to try therapy were varied and reflect the broad ideological spectrum of the respondents. Some reasons were practical and reflect challenges posed by a lack of universal healthcare in the United States and elsewhere: ‘No money and nowhere to go.’ Others related to the belief that their only reason for being an incel was physical: ‘No therapy for your face.’ Others admitted being embarrassed and ashamed to talk about the challenges they experience. Still others were cynical about the efficacy of therapy in general: ‘Absolute bullshit scam. Anyone who actually believe[s] any kind of mental therapy works is just so clueless on how the real-world works.’ Similar remarks referred to therapy as denial of reality, calling it ‘bluepilled advice,’ as contrasted with the purportedly stark reality-based blackpill. This cynicism seemed to overlap with countercultural beliefs, such as accusing therapists of ‘selling you platitudes under disguise of […] blind obedience towards the expectations of mainstream society.’ Similarly, another wrote that he did not want therapy ‘because I don’t [want] to be “normal.”’ Beyond these reasons, however, some delivered more alarming remarks reflecting the pent-up rage toward women that some incels harbor:

Do you know what the fuck would happen if I vented about the thoughts I have towards women? I’m probably getting locked up. What would be hilarious is if I was given a femoid therapist. Someone would end up leaving the session hurt (99.9999999% chance it won’t be me) and as such I’ll end up in even more trouble.

Instead of, or in some cases in addition to, seeking psychological help, the participants expressed wishes for other types of help that they believed would help them better navigate the social world and attract romantic and sexual partners. For instance, 76.1 percent agreed (rated as four or five) that they would like help to ‘maximize their looks,’ while 38.2 percent went so far as to agree that they would like plastic surgery to do so. Moreover, 54.0 percent agreed that they would like help to improve their social skills. Notably, this last measure is something with which mental health professionals could be quite helpful, but the professionals would first need to overcome the clear trust and credibility barrier preventing incels from seeking their help, particularly with being careful that incels do not feel blamed. Finally, 77.6 percent agreed that being in a sexual relationship would improve their quality of life perhaps underlining the relative youth and depth of sexual frustration that exists among them. The distribution of the extent to which participants agreed with these three statements regarding help maximizing their looks, plastic surgery, and help with social skills are presented in Figures 9, 10, and 11. The distribution of the extent to which participants agreed that being in a sexual relationship would improve their quality of life is presented in Figure 12.

Figure 12. Extent to which participants believe that being in a sexual relationship would improve their quality of life.

Alternative coping mechanisms

It is clear that the survey participants are experiencing a range of psychological challenges, but that they are not coping with those challenges through seeking professional help. As such, it is important to understand the mechanisms by which the participants are coping with these challenges, some adaptive and some maladaptive. The most frequently reported coping strategy (93.0 percent) was participation on incel web forums, such as the one through which this survey was distributed. Perhaps because participation on incel web forums is so ubiquitous, and because the sample was drawn from active users on the forum, severity of symptoms of any of the aforementioned disorders was not significantly correlated with the amount of time participants reported spending on the forum each day. Similarly, given that all of the participants were already active members on the forum, this number likely cannot be extrapolated to all incels, but it nevertheless suggests that incel web forums might be an effective way to distribute or at least advertise non-judgmental and compassionate professional psychosocial support and a place to try out creative indirect interventions, such as teaching and improving the social skills necessary to date in the current social milieu.Unfortunately, participation in the forum without such professional support may be counterproductive. Indeed, self-reported intensity of depression was significantly associated with agreement that the forum made them feel depressed and that the forum made them feel suicidal (F(2, 266) = 22.316, p < 0.001, R2 = 0.144). Self-reported intensity of anxiety was significantly associated with agreement that the forum has made them feel violent (F(1, 269) = 12.053, p < 0.01, R2 = 0.043). Self-reported intensity of suicidal thoughts was significantly associated with agreement that the forum has made them feel suicidal (F(1, 265) = 66.102, p < 0.001, R2 = 0.200). Moreover, self-reported frequency of self-harm was significantly positively associated with agreement that the forum made them feel like self-harming (F(1, 266) = 43.503, p < 0.001, R2 = 0.141). Additionally, self-reported frequency of alcohol and drug abuse was significantly associated with agreement that the forum made them feel like self-harming (F(1, 265) = 4.951, p < 0.05, R2 = 0.018).Furthermore, those with pre-existing difficulties in emotional expression and social interactions may be particularly susceptible to the forum’s echo chamber. Self-reported intensity of autism spectrum traits was significantly associated with agreement that the forum has made the respondent feel violent (F(1, 264) = 8.681, p < 0.01, R2 = 0.032) and misogynistic (F(1, 264) = 6.448, p < 0.05, R2 = 0.024). Self-reported intensity of posttraumatic stress was also significantly associated with agreement that the forum has made the respondent feel violent (F(1, 267) = 12.203, p < 0.01, R2 = 0.044), like self-harming (F(1, 268) = 11.448, p < 0.01, R2 = 0.041), and suicidal (F(1, 268) = 7.893, p < 0.01, R2 = 0.029). None of these self-reported psychological symptoms were significantly associated with agreement that the forum helped them make friends, feel at home, feel less lonely, feel a sense of belonging, feel understood, or feel more positive.Frequently reported coping strategies, other than the use of the forum, for dealing with inceldom, were media entertainment such as video games (89.3 percent), pornography (66.5 percent), social media (58.1 percent), and food (51.8 percent). Lesser but still fairly commonly used coping strategies included psychological avoidance (37.9 percent), exercise or sports (32.7 percent), spending time with friends (29.0 percent), alcohol (26.8 percent), and prescription or recreational drugs (25.0 percent). More rarely reported coping strategies included paid sex (12.1 percent), gambling (9.6 percent), and violent behavior (8.8 percent). Again, these are clear indicators that psychotherapeutic interventions are much needed but must be offered in a manner that they can be accepted and crafted in a manner to actually be helpful.

Discussion

If this sample is representative of people who have self-identified as incel and take part on internet forums, this study demonstrates that this population has disproportionately higher rates of self-reported formal diagnoses for serious mental disorders including disorders of depression, anxiety, autism spectrum, bipolar, posttraumatic stress, substance abuse, as well as symptoms of such disorders, than that reported for men by the WHO. While some of these disorders could arguably arise out of frustrated attempts at finding a romantic or sexual partner, some are clearly antecedent to it. In either case, self-identified incels in this survey reported that they were cynical about and disappointed in psychotherapy experiences, which many felt unfairly blamed them for their incel situation rather than showing an understanding of the psychosocial factors also involved such as the prevalence of online dating, a ‘lookist’ society, and women’s empowerment. Self-identified incels in this survey appear to turn to and derive some sense of community and shared, albeit negative, reality on the web forum. However, the results suggest that perceived psychological symptoms of despair, suicidality, negative coping mechanisms, and rage directed at women are, to some extent, related to or associated with participation on the forum. Alas, the sense of community derived from conversing with like-minded individuals online may also serve to confirm and validate existing feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness, as well as confer blame for one’s situation entirely upon women who are perceived as universally rejecting.Given that the incel ideology is marked by resentment toward so-called alpha males to whom they perceive women are attracted because of their physical appearance, money, power, and status, an inability to engage in romantic or sexual relationships can be emasculating, and especially so if the respondents feel that this inability is directly caused by their lack of hyper-masculine physical and personality traits. Throughout the literature, this sense of emasculation has been linked to toxic masculinity-related violence, which is often the focus when discussing incels. Feelings of emasculation in incels should also, however, be examined with regard to psychological challenges. According to gender role strain theory, intense internalization of traditional gender roles can also lead to psychological dysfunction particularly if one finds it impossible to fulfill the prescribed role (Mahalik, 1999). The present results lend support to the notion that a perceived inability to rigidly adhere to those roles may be associated with depression and anxiety.Given all of these factors, it seems that incel forums might be a very important entry point to delivering creative mental health support to those who need it. The authors suggest that such interventions should be offered to incel forums in ways that make it acceptable and useful for them to receive mental health support without blaming them, that can help them to address their serious mental health issues and perhaps for some may also slowly, or even more quickly, pave a way out of their frustrated incel state.

Limitations and directions for future research

The primary limitation of this study is that all psychological challenges and diagnoses were self-reported on a checklist, not measured through validated psychological assessments. Thus, the results of this study should be interpreted as respondents’ self-reports and perceptions of their mental health challenges, rather than their objectively measured challenges. Additionally, because the participants were asked generally about mental health challenges (for example, depression and anxiety) and not about specific psychological disorders (such as major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder), exact comparisons to general population prevalence could not be made. Future research should examine whether incels’ perceptions of their psychological symptoms are consistent with the results of commonly used measures of depression, anxiety, autism and other disorders. Finally, this study was conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic, a time in which many around the world reported experience degradation of their mental health (Pfefferbaum & North, 2020). Although the pandemic could have increased the perceived presence or severity of the respondents’ mental health challenges, Ware (2021) found that incels welcomed the pandemic, happy that those whose lives they previously envied were now also confined to their homes. Nevertheless, increased isolation, or even schadenfreude, is specific to the pandemic and should therefore be considered when applying the results to self-described incels’ lives generally.

References

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