A much-neglected topic in the gun debate is wounded masculinity. We need to devote an entire blog post to this issue in order to drive home its significance.
Researchers Tristan Bridges PhD and Tara Leigh Tober PhD wrote:
Research shows that when an identity someone cares about is called into question, they are likely to react by over-demonstrating qualities associated with that identity. As this relates to gender, some sociologists call this “masculinity threat.” And while mass shootings are not common, research suggests that mass shooters experience masculinity threats from their peers and, sometimes, simply from an inability to live up to societal expectations associated with masculinity (like holding down a steady job, being able to obtain sexual access to women’s bodies, etc.) – some certainly more toxic than others.
The research on this topic is primarily experimental. Men who are brought into labs and have their masculinity experimentally “threatened” react in patterned ways: they are more supportive of violence, less likely to identify sexual coercion, more likely to support statements about the inherent superiority of males, and more.
This research provides important evidence of what men perceive as masculine in the first place (resources they rely on in a crisis) and a new kind evidence regarding the relationship between masculinity and violence. The research does not suggest that men are somehow inherently more violent than women. Rather, it suggests that men are likely to turn to violence when they perceive themselves to be otherwise unable to stake a claim to a masculine gender identity.
I didn’t know masculinity factored so much in mass shootings.
Bridges and Tober’s conclusion is supported by another paper written by John L. Oliffe et al. titled, “Men, Masculinities, and Murder-Suicide.” Oliffe et al. offer the following recommendation to curb this factor:
In the context of gender, guns have been linked to masculine identities ranging from law enforcement officers to gangsters—and such “good guy”–“bad guy” binaries continue to feature whereby the central character(s) (villains and heroes) are men using guns (Combe & Boyle, 2013). One central challenge here is to distance, and ideally dislocate masculinity from the reactive and fatal use of guns by modeling and affirming alternatives to wielding power and asserting dominance with such aggression and tragedy.
Mental Illness and Violence
I want to return to a point made in part 4 of this series because it points to mental illness as a factor in mass shootings. It is important to bring absolute clarity this issue. We covered research on people with serious mental illness in part 3. That post was limited to people with severe mental disorders who engage in mass shootings. Here, we will expand our study to mental illness and violence in general.
Interlocutors in this debate fail to make crucial distinctions and this failure is distorting political discourse on all levels. The MacArthur Violence Risk Assessment study is one of the most rigorous studies on mental illness and violence. A distinction was made between those who had both a substance abuse disorder and a psychiatric disorder (a “dual diagnosis”) and people with a psychiatric disorder alone. Here is how Harvard University’s Mental Health Letter puts it:
The study found that 31% of people who had both a substance abuse disorder and a psychiatric disorder (a “dual diagnosis”) committed at least one act of violence in a year, compared with 18% of people with a psychiatric disorder alone. This confirmed other research that substance abuse is a key contributor to violent behavior. But when the investigators probed further, comparing rates of violence in one area in Pittsburgh in order to control for environmental factors as well as substance use, they found no significant difference in the rates of violence among people with mental illness and other people living in the same neighborhood. In other words, after controlling for substance use, rates of violence reported in the study may reflect factors common to a particular neighborhood rather than the symptoms of a psychiatric disorder.
To put it bluntly, people with mental illness are not committing most of the crimes. A few more studies should be sufficient to clear the air.
Jeffrey Swanson is a medical sociologist and professor of psychiatry at Duke University. The New Yorker:
When Swanson first analyzed the ostensible connection between violence and mental illness, looking at more than ten thousand individuals (both mentally ill and healthy) during the course of one year, he found that serious mental illness alone was a risk factor for violence—from minor incidents, like shoving, to armed assault—in only four percent of cases. That is, if you took all of the incidents of violence reported among the people in the survey, mental illness alone could explain only four percent of the incidents. When Swanson broke the samples down by demographics, he found that the occurrence of violence was more closely associated with whether someone was male, poor, and abusing either alcohol or drugs—and that those three factors alone could predict violent behavior with or without any sign of mental illness. If someone fit all three of those categories, the likelihood of them committing a violent act was high, even if they weren’t also mentally ill. If someone fit none, then mental illness was highly unlikely to be predictive of violence. “That study debunked two myths,” Swanson said. “One: people with mental illness are all dangerous. Well, the vast majority are not. And the other myth: that there’s no connection at all. There is one. It’s quite small, but it’s not completely nonexistent.”
Mental Illness is a small factor in predicting violence. We would expect mental health professionals to be able to pick out people who are more prone to commit violent acts if mental illness was a major fact, but this is not the case:
Psychiatrists also have a very hard time predicting which of their patients will go on to commit a violent act. In one study, the University of Pittsburgh psychiatrist Charles Lidz and his colleagues had doctors at a psychiatric emergency department evaluate admitted patients and predict whether or not they would commit violence against others. They found that, over the next six months, fifty-three percent of those patients who doctors predicted would commit a violent act actually did. Thirty-six percent of the patients thought not to be violent in fact went on to commit a violent act. For female patients, the prediction rates were no better than chance. A 2012 meta-analysis of data from close to twenty-five thousand participants, from thirteen countries, led by the Oxford University psychiatrist Seena Fazel, found that the nine assessment tools most commonly used to predict violence—from actuarial ones like the Psychopathy Checklist to clinical judgment tools like the Structured Assessment of Violence Risk in Youth—had only “low to moderate” predictive value.
Let’s stop turning people with mental illnesses into the enemy and muster the moral fortitude and political will to implement effective legislative measures like the ones listed in part 5 of this blog series.