In the wake of Friday’s mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado, arguments for stricter gun laws have been joined by calls for better mental health treatment — especially for men. Experts generally agree that men with mental illness are less likely to be diagnosed and treated than women, and that they are more likely to take out their distress on others. Mass murderers are also overwhelmingly male. But when it comes to whether better treatment would actually stop killings, the picture becomes a lot more murky.
Martin Kantor, author of Lifting the Weight: Understanding Depression in Men, Its Causes and Solutions, told BuzzFeed Shift that men’s mental illness is diagnosed “both differently and less” than women’s. He explained that diagnostic criteria are sometimes based on symptoms that occur more often in women, like crying — since men tend to cry less, their problems may be missed. And because men have to deal with the stereotype that acknowledging pain is weak or effeminate, they can be reluctant to seek help.
Kantor draws a direct line between inadequate mental health care for men and criminal behavior: “mass shootings,” he says, “are the prime example of the occasional failure to properly diagnose and treat mental illness in men.” He noted that underdiagnosis wasn’t the only problem — many men who suffer from paranoia, he said, are instead diagnosed with depression and given the wrong drugs, which may make them even more prone to “anger and homicidal thoughts and actions.”
Others agree that treating mental illness could prevent mass murder. Dewey G. Cornell, forensic clinic psychologist and co-author of Columbine a Decade Later: The Prevention of Homicidal Violence in Schools, told BuzzFeed, “people think we cannot prevent violence because it seems unpredictable.” But actually, he says, better mental health services could save lives by helping people before they ever become violent. Right now, he said, we as a society don’t invest enough money or time in these services, making everyone less safe: “it is like having seat belts in just a few cars.”
But some question the connection between mental illness and crime. William Jiang, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of 19 and has written a memoir about the experience, told BuzzFeed Shift that mentally ill people are more likely to be victims of crimes than to be violent criminals (one study showed that people with mental illness were six times more likely to be murdered than the general population). He believes proper treatment could have stopped Aurora suspect James Holmes from opening fire in a theater, but said it was unfortunate that the media “is making him the face of mental illness. I do not believe he is. He is the exception to the rule.”
Thom Bierdz, whose brother Troy beat their mother to death with a baseball bat in 1989, says he doesn’t believe mental illness is responsible for most killings. Now an artist and author of the memoir Forgiving Troy, Thom Bierdz said his brother was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia by some doctors at the time of the murder, and had been seen by numerous professionals before that. However, he doesn’t believe Troy actually had the disorder. Bierdz said that while it’s “easy to label” murderers as insane, most actually were “just pissed and felt powerless.”
Melissa Thompson, sociologist and author of Race, Gender, and Mental Illness in the Criminal Justice System, agrees that mental illness doesn’t necessarily explain mass murder. She pointed to research showing that not all mass murderers are mentally ill, and that mentally ill people are no more likely than others to be violent. She also noted that we don’t yet know if Holmes suffered from mental illness.
This isn’t to say that better treatment for men shouldn’t be a priority. Thompson notes that people with untreated mental illness tend to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol, and those are associated with crime — so getting people into treatment might reduce violence in that way. And, of course, treatment would help mentally ill men themselves.
For them to get it, Thompson says we need widespread cultural change. She recommends that we “get the message out that it’s not sissy or weak to show emotion,” and that parents and elementary school teachers treat boys and girls more equally, rather than expecting boys to be tougher. Jiang agrees — he said better treatment was necessary not just to stop men from becoming killers, but to keep them from becoming victims too.