Life After Hate: A Reformed White Nationalist’s Message About Mental Health and Education

Updated: Oct 09, 2017 11:43
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We like to think we’re living in a post-racial society, until events like the recent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville hit the news. It reminds us how much hate is still in the world. There are so many stories in the news about the negativity that it’s hard to find any positive in these situations. One positive story comes in the likes of Christian Picciolini who refers to himself as a reformed white nationalist.

Preying on Impressionable Youth

Picciolini joined a white nationalist group when he was a young teenager. Describing himself as lost and lonely, he was eager to find somewhere he belonged — and that somewhere was a group known as the Chicago Area Skinheads. By 16, he was the leader of the group, recruiting other impressionable youth to his cause.

Many kids that age aren’t looking for someone to hate, though there are obviously exceptions. As Picciolini puts it, “They’re searching for three very fundamental human needs: identity, community and a sense of purpose.”

As twisted as it might seem, these white nationalist groups can give lost or lonely individuals all three of these things. Savvy recruiters know how to prey on these needs, bringing people who are barely more than children themselves into this world of hate.

Picciolini left the Chicago Area Skinheads when he was 22, and turned his back on a life of hate. He helped to co-found a group known as Life After Hate which provides services to help people from all walks of life get away from extremist and violent groups like the one he was part of as a teenager and young adult.

Looking Beneath the Masks

It’s sad to know that what makes people gravitate toward groups like this is often simply that they’re looking for somewhere to belong. “If underneath that fundamental search is something that’s broken — I call them potholes — is there abuse or trauma or mental illness or addiction?” said Picciolini, which may be more insightful than he knows.

As many as 10 percent of American adults battle some form of depression, which can exacerbate those feelings of loneliness and abandonment that lead individuals to look for somewhere — anywhere — to belong.

The internet makes it even easier to find these identities or places to belong for these people who are seeking. Instead of having to seek out a white nationalist group in person, you can simply log on to a website or forum and find that sense of identity while remaining anonymous.

The Need for Education

While the core beliefs of the white nationalist groups may be more difficult to address, mental health education could help both individuals and professionals handle some of the situations that might lead someone to join one of these groups.

Resources are often lacking for both students and young people, and the adults tasked with their education and care. Instead, these educators focus on the concept of ‘resilience’ —bouncing back from any criticism or obstacle. For someone with depression or mental illness, though, that’s not always possible — and that’s why these individuals are common targets for white nationalist recruiters. The recruiters play on these perceived weaknesses and provide them with tools to strengthen themselves.  Unfortunately, these tools end up being employed at the expense of others.

Education about mental illness and depression, for students, teachers and parents, can help to eliminate one of the tools that white nationalist recruiters use to add to their ranks.

Learning From the Past

While we can’t change the hate that’s already been done, we can learn from the mistakes of the past so we don’t repeat them in the future. Picciolini is trying to do this every single day, both with his nonprofit group, and with his book — Romantic Violence: Memoirs of an American Skinhead. By bringing these dark things into the light, we can start to learn not to make the same mistakes again.

It’s not a perfect solution — there’s still more than enough hate to go around, as the events in Charlottesville have recently shown us. It will be more difficult to mitigate these problems while we have a president who validates this hateful behavior. But if we take a look at how far we’ve come, it will hopefully give us the strength to move forward at last and truly create a country that can live life after hate.


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