Health Blog

Teaching Boys to Feel

As we’re painfully aware, a wave of gun violence has swept the country in recent years, leaving behind grief and despair, from an elementary school in Connecticut to a community college in Oregon. Pundits, politicians, journalists all have offered takes on what, or who, is to blame for these horrific mass shootings. And while there are many theories, mental illness and gun availability are far-and-away the most popular targets.

On NBC’s “Meet the Press”, Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump captured the ethos of those attempting to make scapegoats of the mentally ill: “Guns, no guns, doesn’t matter. You have people that are mentally ill and they’re going to come through the cracks and they’re going to do things that people will not even believe are possible.”

The mentally ill may make a convenient target, but it’s both opportunistic and faulty to link mental illness with mass shootings. Statistics simply don’t support the connection. According to Vanderbilt University researchers Jonathan M. Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish, “less than 3% to 5% of US crimes involve people with mental illness, and the percentages of crimes that involve guns are lower than the national average for persons not diagnosed with mental illness” (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4318286/). And, as Metzl and MacLeish point out, persons with mental illness are much more likely to be victims of violent crimes than perpetrators of such acts.

On the other end of the spectrum, Democratic candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton, at a recent debate, placed blame squarely at the feet of the gun lobby: “We have to look at the fact that we lose 90 people a day to gun violence. This has gone on too long, and it’s time the entire country stood up against the NRA.”

Common sense supports the notion that decreased access to lethal weapons would reduce the number of fatalities, but lax gun alone laws don’t account for the spike in mass shootings in recent years, as there has long been easy access to firearms in this country. And while I support stricter gun regulations, I think it would behoove us to look also at the deeper, systemic factors at play. What accounts for the anger, hopelessness, and despair that drive individuals to act out in unprecedented, heinous ways? Underlying issues must be addressed, not only to see fewer deaths as a result of violence, but to achieve an overall more peaceful society.

I recently attended a talk by Randy Flood, director of the Men’s Resource Center of West Michigan. In that discussion, Flood suggested a connection between violent crimes and the prevailing norms for raising boys in this country. While this may seem like a “blame the parent” reaction at first blush, it gains traction when we consider that more than 98% of mass shootings are perpetrated by men (http://time.com/114128/elliott-rodgers-ucsb-santa-barbara-shooter/).

So what is it about their development that seemingly prompts boys—in extremely rare circumstances, mind you—to commit unthinkable acts? Flood implies (and I tend to agree based on my work with male clients and through awareness of my own history) that messages we give boys such as “suck it up” and “boys don’t cry” badly miss their intended mark. Rather than creating super-male machines that are unfazed by anything life throws their way, we’re teaching boys that feelings are bad, that they are to be pushed away, ignored, stifled, denied. And since all humans experience feelings, we’re sending the message that there’s no outlet for the inevitable . . .  except through the only means of male self-expression that society accepts: aggression.

Imagine if there were another, more sensible way. Imagine if we raised boys to express themselves in a healthy manner, treated them like people instead of unfeeling machines. Imagine if, rather than shooting up a school, a boy felt safe enough to talk through his anger with a parent, a teacher, a counselor. Try to imagine that the next time you interact with a boy in your life. I vow to try with my two sons.

By:
Aaron George, LMSW, CAADC
Outpatient Therapist
Leonard Street Counseling Center