The True Crisis of Mass Violence

“Deeper even than the gun problem is this: boys are broken”, tweeted US comedian Michael Ian Black following the February 14th mass shooting at a Florida high school which left 17 dead and a further 14 injured.

Four days later, the tweet was adopted by The Age columnist Clementine Ford in an article titled, “Are mass shootings the result of boys in crisis?” in which Ford attempts to formulate an answer to the same question.

Correctly stating that boys and men “make up the vast majority of perpetrators of gun violence and mass shootings”, Ford theorises that “mental illness is not the leading cause of this violence”. This statement, however, flies in the face of the incarceration rates of the mentally ill people, particularly men, and rising suicide rates among the same gender – the numbers of which have been increasing decade after decade since the 1960s.

Instead, Ford contends that “being a white man with a history of violence towards women and children is more likely to turn you into a mass shooter”, citing statistics which contend 16% of all shooters are reported to have been previously charged with some form of domestic violence.

Certainly, while perpetrators’ past histories of, and proclivity for, domestic violence cannot be ignored or discounted in subsequent incidences of mass violence, it is a far deeper issue that calls for both immediate attention and urgency.

For this deeper issue, we need only observe mental health statistics, particularly those related to both suicide and the likelihood of men seeking professional help for symptoms of mental illness.

As outlined by The Black Dog Institute, citing an Australian study and its corresponding statistics, “in 2011 men accounted for over three quarters (76%) of deaths from suicide. However, an estimated 72% of males don’t seek help for mental disorders”.

Of course, these statistics do not begin to cover the situation of Mental Health in the United States, where the mass shooting of Parkland, Florida occurred, and where it is largely considered fact that men receive better Mental Health care inside prison walls than they have, or would ever have, access to outside of them.

Case in point, throughout the year 2012, roughly 356,268 individuals with severe mental illness were in prisons or jails, while an estimated 35,000 were housed in State Psychiatric Hospitals. This follows the deinstitutionalisation movement that occurred in the 1960s, closing down countless Mental Health Hospitals and cutting the estimated amount of available psychiatric beds from roughly 550,000 to 40,000 as of 2016.

This same deinstitutionalisation movement has been linked to the epidemic of mass incarceration in the United States, and it seems an unlikely coincidence that mass shootings per decade have continued to gradually increase since 1960 and the beginning of that same deinstitutionalisation movement, as shown in a 2013 Global Research study on the timeline of Mass Shootings in the United States.

A similar increase in Mass Violence followed Australia’s own deinstitutionalisation movement throughout the 1980s and 1990s, before culminating finally with the tragic Port Arthur Massacre in 1996, in which 35 people were killed, and which prompted extensive restrictions of firearm access Australia-wide.

While there has been little information publicly released on a definitive diagnosis for Port Arthur shooter Martin Bryant, it has been widely speculated that he had suffered from mental illness prior to the massacre and, in 2006, Bryant was transferred to a secure mental health facility at Risdon Prison, in Hobart, Tasmania.

Much like Florida school shooter Nikolas Cruz, Bryant had displayed various signs of being disturbed and potentially violent throughout his childhood and adolescent years, however there is little to no evidence that Bryant – or Cruz – were ever given access to extensive psychological care. In fact, at least in the case of Cruz, it appears quite the opposite.

Of course, while Mental Health services do remain on an outpatient basis for individuals to have access to, both in the United States and here in Australia, with the rising costs of living and spikes in the unemployment rate, these services often loom as an unaffordable luxury for a countless many.

With unemployment in Australia at 5.5% at the end of 2017, living costs in Australia are rising disproportionately quickly in comparison to other countries and the average weekly wage is estimated at just over $1100, the $246 fee that the Australian Psychological Society recommends for a standard 45 to 60 minute private consultation stands as intimidating a beast as the ‘Black Dog’ itself.

This is not to even mention how the very same problematic image of masculinity that Clementine Ford identified in her column works in driving men to turn away from professional help, again reflected in The Black Dog Institute’s Mental Health statistics as mentioned above.

After all, the prevailing image of masculinity is one of “toughness and grit”, where the admittance of Mental Health issues or struggles could be seen as “weak”, or “soft”, and a sign that the sufferers were “not manly”. With all things considered, it becomes a striking reality that, more and more frequently, our boys and men are finding themselves sitting in the middle of a perfect storm.

Sadly, that perfect storm is costing innocent lives with increasing regularity, not only in the United States, but also here in Australia, and further abroad. It is also the same perfect storm causing disillusioned, confused and lonely boys and men to turn to extremism, searching for a purpose in their lives.

And it is the same perfect storm that turned 19 year old Nikolas Cruz from a troubled teenager with a history of mental health issues, to a mass murderer described by the NRA’s Dana Loesch as an “insane monster”.

Dangerously, this same language – echoed by US President Donald Trump in repeated insistences that school shooter Cruz is a “sicko” – may only serve to make matters worse for sufferers of mental illness, the majority of whom do not go on to commit any acts of violence.

“The vast majority of people experiencing mental illness are not violent,” Professors Rosemary Purcell and James Ogloff wrote in 2014, in a Conversation article addressing the connections between violence and mental health, “However, those with a serious mental illness have increased rates of violence, including family violence, when compared to people who do not have a mental illness.”

Dangerous though the language, and correlation of mental illness to violence, may be, as Ogloff and Purcell add, in their same 2014 article, “…the fear of further stigmatising a disadvantaged group should not shut down a much more important conversation.”

That important conversation surrounds exactly what must be done to better address issues of mental health. There is no question in the case of Cruz, and the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School which claimed 17 lives, that gun control persists as a major issue in the United States.

Similarly, there is no question that US law enforcement failed to act in a timely manner on the warning signs exhibited by Cruz before his heinous act. But beneath it all, mental health rears its head as a driving force for rapidly rising occurrences of both mass violence and private violence alike.

Quite certainly, evidence continues to suggest that, until a better system emerges to treat Mental Health and culture adapts to encourage boys and men to seek professional and/or personal help for issues of Mental Health, our boys will continue to be broken, violence will continue to occur and lives will continue to be lost.

Ultimately, while there is no excuse for mass, or private, violence, there certainly is a reason. In addressing why our “broken boys” may be turning to violence, and to guns, Clementine Ford contended that the loss of societal power was the leading cause.

The statistics suggest otherwise. Rather, instead of loss of power, it is lack of help that appears to have broken our boys. Now, the question is how prepared we are to try and fix them.