Sara Budge is a psychologist and director of ExitUSA, Life After Hate’s intervention program.
Joining the violent far-right is a social process. Often it involves being recruited from people you trust—friends, family, sometimes both. Entering this new world of violent extremism may begin online, in chat rooms full of conspiracy theories parading as political and social commentary. Or it may begin offline, where grievances are swapped in person. Sometimes, it happens with some combination of both.
Whatever that journey looks like, once in, it’s the underlying social compacts that keep people engaged. The good news for the rest of us is that this dynamic offers us the greatest hope for people exiting violent hate. If getting in is a social process, so is getting out.
Leaving the violent far-right means building and (re)building prosocial relationships and developing a new, nonviolent social network. Individuals exiting the violent far-right make their way to Life After Hate because that social support is built into the services we provide via our intervention program, ExitUSA.
Since the founding of Life After Hate we have learned that the needs of people leaving violent far-right extremism are complex, and require a multidisciplinary approach that includes peer support from other formers, as well as support from social workers, mental health professionals, substance abuse treatment, and beyond.
Case management by a trained professional can help identify an individual’s unique constellation of needs, the barriers to change, and then help prioritize goals to allow them to leave the movement. Occupational and educational opportunities help our clients engage in new and positive roles in society, while life skills training allows for boundary setting in relationships, healthy coping skills, and self care to help them thrive.
Mental health interventions that address the lasting effects of early trauma and adverse childhood experiences, trauma from the movement, and emotion regulation are also often needed.
Once an individual has begun building a new life based on affirming, positive relationships, we can begin addressing the violent and hateful ideology.
The multidisciplinary team provides both the social connections needed to leave the movement, but also asks the right questions and provides comprehensive support to move the individual from violence to nonviolence.
Many of our clients continue to be at risk of violence, to themselves and others, and have extensive mental health needs. Right now, we refer clients to local mental health resources. We envision a future in which we provide these services directly.
Demand has never been greater. Jan. 6 tells us that more people are at risk of believing that violence is the best way to enact change. The messages that incited that insurrection, and the messages that emanated from it, might not be entirely new. But their reach has never been quite so far and wide.
While peer support is an invaluable part of the exit process at every stage, its greatest impact might be at forging the connections early on so that we can begin these difficult conversations as soon as possible. Formers have the ability to connect with individuals who are reluctant to trust others and can challenge an individual’s belief system in ways that others cannot.
Ten years ago the founding members of Life After Hate realized that their own path out of a life of violence was fraught with loneliness, uncertainty, and fear. They committed to making sure that anyone who wanted to leave extremism would have access to the help they need to do it.
What they may have not been able to foretell is just how visionary they were. And now it’s up to us to turn that vision into reality.