In response to last week’s mass shooting in Oregon, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, is calling for passage of the Mental Health Reform Act.

While increased focus on mental health issues is important, many are concerned about the stigma that people with mental illness face — especially considering that the mentally ill are more likely to be victims of a violent crime than to commit a violent crime.

Perhaps we need to zoom in closer. Some have noted that most shooters are white males. But this conflates two factors.

According to demographic data presented in Mother Jones magazine, a majority of shooters do seem to have mental health problems, but what really stands out is that 98 percent of the shooters are male.

“Why” is an important question.

Masculinity is often blamed. Indeed, men are the large majority of the perpetrators of all violent crimes. But the overwhelming majority of men are not violent, so there must be another piece to the puzzle.


After all, masculinity is multi-faceted, with both positive and negative aspects. The stoic, violent tough guy is not the sum total of masculinity, though he casts a huge shadow.

In the documentary “The Mask You Live In,” which is being shown at South Portland High School on Oct. 22, sociologist Michael Kimmel says that most boys don’t agree with the tough guy image of masculinity. But boys still feel pressure to conform to it.

A man who is struggling with inner demons, however, and who feels insecure about his identity might overcompensate by emulating an action movie tough guy.

But even most of these would-be tough guys don’t go on shooting rampages. That’s why I took notice while watching a “CBS Evening News” interview with research scientist and professor Kelly Posner, who founded Columbia University’s Suicide Prevention Research Program. She said that 90 percent of mass shooters have had serious suicidal thoughts, and 30 percent claim that suicide was a motive for their crime.

More than three-quarters of those who die by suicide are male, and the gap first appears in adolescence.

Women attempt suicide more, and this cry for help can provide an opportunity for intervention. But men use more fatal methods, such as firearms.


Often the discussion stops there. But we need to ask why men use more lethal suicide methods. Are men less likely to believe they’ll be listened to? People might listen to men more than women when the topic is impersonal, such as sports or politics. But men who try to open up emotionally are often told to “man up” or are derided as “man babies.”

A more polite way of discouraging male communication is telling a man that women’s issues are more important, so he shouldn’t be talking about men’s issues. But that’s zero-sum reasoning.

Moralizing about male entitlement and male privilege is also a common response. But finger-wagging rarely accomplishes much — and sometimes makes things worse.

One way to encourage men to be more empathetic is to be more empathetic toward men.

For example, we know that more women than men are diagnosed with depression. But that doesn’t mean men are less likely to experience depression. Research shows that mental health professionals often don’t recognize depression in men because there are differences in the way men and women experience depression. Specifically, depressed men are more likely to act out or engage in risky behavior.

And this information isn’t new. The evidence that men suffer from depression at similar rates as women goes back more than a quarter-century. More than 20 years ago, educators launched a national effort in our schools to address girls’ unique needs. Today, girls are significantly more likely than boys to graduate from high school and college. And girls benefit from numerous programs that address issues such as self-esteem and body image. There’s even a White House Council on Women and Girls.

It’s time to launch a similar effort to address boys’ unique issues. Of the perpetrators of mass shootings, 98 percent are male, and 90 percent have had serious suicidal thoughts that often begin in adolescence. This means we have a key opportunity to identity troubled adolescent boys and provide them with the support they need before they pick up a gun.

David DuBay is a resident of Portland.

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