One of the disturbing things that happens after every mass shooting is that virtually everyone, right and left, immediately starts talking about mental illness as the cause of the problem. The right does this only when the killer is white, of course, but the left does it too. We’ve seen it since the Parkland school shootings in all the memes criticizing Trump for blaming it on mental illness while simultaneously complaining that he signed a bill that withdrew Obama-era restrictions on those with mental illnesses buying guns.
Here’s why I find that disturbing. First, because rarely does anyone bother to make a distinction between different types of mental illnesses. It’s an incredibly broad category that covers a wide range of very different conditions. The National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates that about 20% of the population experiences some form of mental illness in a given year. The most common forms are anxiety disorders like PTSD, OCD or various phobias. About 18% of adults struggle with such disorders. Another 7% or so struggle with depression. Then you have conditions like schizophrenia, anorexia, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, and so forth.
A sizable percentage of the population suffers from such conditions, but only an extremely tiny percentage of the population engages in murder, particularly on a mass scale. Clearly, it does us little good to casually tie mental illness, in the general sense, to mass violence. If you want to talk about specific conditions that might correlate, like psychopathy and sociopathy, that might be a productive discussion. But to talk in general terms about mental illness is useless at best and dangerous at worst. And frankly, Trump was right to sign that bill, which also had the support of the ACLU and many disability rights groups as well.
But we can get more specific than that as well. There are studies that look at what percentage of killers have some form of mental illness, and it turns out to be a pretty small percentage. Jonathan Foiles, writing in Psychology Today, mentions some of those studies and why they are important in countering some dangerous myths on the subject:
The supposed link between mental illness and violence is so ingrained in our culture that stories like the above need only suggest that the perpetrator was depressed in order to satisfy a need for an explanation. Research reveals a far different story, however. People with mental illnesses are actually far more likely to be victims rather than perpetrators of violence (Appleby et. al., 2001). Those with severe mental illnesses (schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, psychosis) are actually 2.5 times more likely to be victims of a violent crime than the general population (Hiday, 2006). A 2011 study found that in order to prevent one violent homicide by a person with schizophrenia, 35,000 patients deemed to be at a high risk of violence would need to be detained (Large et. al., 2011). And yet the link persists. A 2013 survey conducted after the Newtown shooting found that 46 percent of Americans believe that persons with a serious mental illness are “far more dangerous than the general population” (Barry et. al., 2013).
The stereotype about violence and mental illness is not just inaccurate; it is dangerous. Every story that suggests a causal link between mental illness and violence further increases the stigma of having a mental illness, making it less likely that those experiencing a mental illness will seek help. This supposed link also hurts the general population, because it communicates the implicit message that mental illness is something to be feared. This further isolates those with mental illness from the surrounding community, when we know that being integrated into society increases functioning and well-being for those with a mental illness. Finally, the stereotype is just lazy; it lets us off the hook far too easily. If we can blame violence on the perpetrator’s mental illness, then we don’t have to dig back too far into his history to find the ways in which we failed to notice warning signs, or the ways in which our gun laws enable civilian access to military weapons, among other things.
But the link is also illogical. Mental illness is not something that changes much from country to country, it’s part of the human condition. Americans are no more likely to suffer from mental illness than, say, Canadians. So why is this problem of mass shootings so prevalent here and nowhere else in the developed world? Why doesn’t Finland have regular mass killings? Or Scotland? Or Switzerland? Or Japan? The answer can’t lie in genetics, which means it must lie in culture and policy.
So then we must ask ourselves what is the common thread in almost all mass killings in this country and the answer is as plain as day: Gender. Virtually every mass killer in the entire history of this nation has been a man.
Yet, while most mass shooters in the past 35 years have not been found to have a serious mental illness, nearly all of them do have one thing in common: their sex. Of the 96 mass shootings committed since 1982, all but two were committed by men.
Those 96 mass shootings are from the Mother Jones archive, which defines a mass shooting as “an incident in which the motive appeared to be indiscriminate killing and a lone gunman took the lives of at least three people.” There have been many more than that which were not indiscriminate, which means they were most likely an act of terrorism, with a specific target for a specific political motivation, like a shooting at an abortion clinic. Those are also almost exclusively carried out by men. But it isn’t just mass shootings. The overwhelming majority of all acts of violence in this country are carried out by men:
Men don’t just constitute almost all mass shooters in recent history; they are also responsible for the vast majority of gun-associated deaths in the country. Men own guns at triple the rate of women in the U.S., at 62 percent compared to 22 percent—and also commit suicide at nearly triple the rate of women. Eighty-nine percent of murder-suicides are committed by men, and most often include an unwitting female partner or ex-partner. (Murder suicides claim 1,200 American lives annually; nearly all of them are committed with a gun.) In fact, more than half of mass shootings (54 percent) are actually domestic violence incidents. And according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which tracks court cases involving domestic violence, 86 percent of the perpetrators of domestic violence documented in court cases are men.
Some point to the role of testosterone here, and it’s true that studies show a direct correlation between testosterone levels and violence. But American men don’t have higher testosterone than any other country does, so clearly that genetic factor is, at the very least, tempered by cultural variables. So what does American culture have that is failing to rein in those genetic factors to the extent that is happening elsewhere? The hold of toxic masculinity, I believe.
This suggests that societal influences probably play a larger role in violence than any biological factor. After all, our culture is saturated in messages—whether in the media, in our military, in sports, at the workplace, or in our education and health care systems—that embrace and even endorse a distorted view of masculinity, which tends to value and encourage expressions of aggression by men.
Even those men who might be suffering from mental illness are unlikely to seek out counseling because it is often stigmatized as “weak” for men to seek out help and admit vulnerability. Among those who do make it into an therapist’s office or mental health program, domestic abusers are notoriously resistant to treatment protocols.
Madfis also notes that many men who commit mass shootings tend to be those who have failed to achieve financial and romantic success in ways that our society values and accredits as “manly.” As a result, Madfis explains, men may feel emboldened to resort to violence to gain both revenge and some level of notoriety as compensation for being denied what they thought they were owed, or felt pressure to attain. Elliot Rodger went on a shooting spree in Santa Barbara, California, in 2014 after he taped a video of himself complaining about beautiful women denying him sex. James Oliver Huberty shot up a California McDonald’s in 1984 after his business ventures failed. We could also consider the trend of post office shootings committed by disgruntled postal workers or former workers, or the fact that nearly a third of all mass shootings often occur in workplaces, or the many incidents involving a woman being shot for leaving or threatening to leave her abusive male partner.
“If violence was just due to genetics, [mass shootings] would not be happening with increasing frequency or occur so much more often in the United States than other places,” says Madfis. “It’s time to have a close look at our culture and what is going in terms of how masculinity is defined and characterized, which is often as something that is performed or ‘proven’ through acts of aggression and even violence.”
And what is interesting is how this operates in both directions. The men who commit these horrific acts tend to be from both groups — those who hold to this toxic view of masculinity that tells them that the only acceptable way for men to express emotion or grievance is through violence, and those who are often the victims of those men, bullied to the breaking point by the toxically masculine. Either way, the root cause, I believe, is in our twisted, outdated ideas of what it means to be a man. And if we are truly serious about reducing the levels of mass violence in this country, this needs to be a major focus (but hardly the only one; gun policy also needs some serious changes, as do other things).