Unraveling incel complex: Is your patient an 'involuntary celibate'?

By Salma Mahmoud | Fact-checked by Barbara Bekiesz
Published May 7, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • Incel complex is a condition where people are involuntarily celibate and lack the ability to form deep, intimate, and sexual relations, which results in loneliness, depression, and possibly violent thoughts.

  • Incel complex is not yet recognized as a psychological condition, although more cases fitting the description of incel complex are emerging. 

  • While there is no specific proven treatment, many types of therapies, including existential therapy and narrative therapy, could prove effective at aiding patients exhibiting this complex.

The term incel was first coined to describe a group of people from all genders who struggled to form intimate and sexual relationships despite their desire for them. Over time, the incel community—which exists almost exclusively online—has become overwhelmingly dominated by heterosexual males who struggle with mental health problems and violence, and believe that women, sex, and relationships are all things owed to them. 

This condition is not officially recognized, nor well understood. Risk assessment and psychotherapy are potential approaches to reduce the incidence of violence. 

What is incel complex?

Incel complex is a phenomenon where people are involuntarily celibate, which in turn causes feelings of loneliness, depression, negativity, and oftentimes violence. According to a review of incel complex by researchers at Michigan State University, incel communities tend to blame women for the harm they believe women have done to them.[] 

Researchers at Cambridge University have noted a rise in violent acts in recent years committed by men who identify as involuntary celibates.[]  

However, that is not to say that everyone within the incel community is violent. Brenna Helm, a lead researcher at Michigan State University, says, “There are individuals in these communities who are hurting and who are open to alternative avenues for managing their frustrations that do not include misogyny or harm to themselves or others.” 

Part of the struggle in understanding this condition is that the incel community lacks faith in research and academia, viewing it as likely to be villainizing instead of helpful in understanding the true cause of their feelings and behaviors. 

Incel complex facts and figures

An online poll of 665 individuals with incel complex conducted by the Cambridge University researchers disclosed that the majority were males between the ages of 18 and 30. Around 68% of this group expressed having depression, 74% said they suffered from anxiety, and 40% reported they had autism. 

These statistics show that mental illness has a large effect on this community. 

Information from direct questioning of 272 persons self-identified with incel complex indicated that 64% reported having depressive episodes, 60% reported anxiety, and 48% reported having suicidal thoughts; 28% reported having PTSD.[] 

Advice for completing a risk assessment 

In their review, the UK researchers discussed aspects to consider when completing a risk assessment for a patient with possible incel complex. 

Overall, some of the most important aspects to inquire about and discuss with the patient would be internet use, relationship history, misogyny, frustrations, mental illness, autism, and indoctrination into incel ideology. 

These topics help the clinician better understand where the patient stands and how much help they would need based on the severity of the patient’s response to those categories. For example, questions about a relationship and possible lack of intimacy could result in anger, shame, or embarrassment from a patient with incel complex. If the individual also expresses misogyny and anti-feminist ideals, as well as homophobia and racism, that could also be a sign of the risk level associated with that person and their incel complex. 

Therapeutic options

Because specific treatments for this type of mental health issue are still in early stages, there are only a few general therapeutic suggestions for patients who are exhibiting behavioral patterns consistent with those for incel complex.

Psychotherapy may involve existential therapy, narrative therapy, person-centered therapy, and reality therapy. The key to any type of clinical intervention is to validate the feelings of the patient while also attempting to dismantle any violent thoughts that are due to a lack of the ability to form intimate relationships. 

While psychotherapy can certainly only help with this condition, it might prove difficult to ensure that a patient actually sees a mental health specialist. 

Individuals with incel complex generally exhibit a distrust toward health care professionals.

In the survey involving the incel participants who were directly spoken to, less than half ever admitted to trying therapy, and only 15% found it useful. The remaining particpants viewed therapy as a waste of time and money. However, group therapy may prove to be successful in creating a sense of community where these individuals feel willing to share feelings and talk through issues. 

What this means for you

Incel complex is a new and under-researched mental health issue that is associated with a rising number of violent incidents. Individuals suspected of having incel complex should be assessed for mental illness, participation in online incel communities, misogyny, and relationship history. Various psychotherapy approaches may permit these patients to discuss their problems and address any thoughts of violence. 

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