I’ll never forget April 20th, 1999.
I was 12 years old, sitting in art class in middle school. We were playing with clay and making sculptures. Suddenly, our principal came on over the PA. Her voice trembled. “I have an important announcement to make. All teachers and students need to hear this. I will wait 60 seconds for everyone to be completely silent.”
The next minute was eerie. My friends and I exchanged confused looks, and nervously laughed. Our teacher held her finger to her lips. Silence. The principal’s voice came back onto the PA: “There is a shooting at Columbine High School. All students are to go home immediately.”
Columbine was 15 minutes away from us.
I remember taking the bus home, and walking into my house. My mom turned on the news. I recognized that fence. We’ve driven by that fence. My mom knew the teacher. Dave Sanders. She’d substituted with him at Columbine.
In the last 18 years, we Americans have experienced too many of these shootings. And I want to share a few of my thoughts on why I think they keep happening.
By the way, this isn’t a political post about guns, or the media. It’s a post about men, and their emotional health.
Over the past few years, I’ve found myself in the mental health space. I’ve learned a lot. Particularly that men in the United States really struggle in this realm, and have very little social or emotional support. This affects men of every race and socio-economic background.
I was watching Jimmy Kimmel’s impassioned, raw speech last night about the Vegas shootings. Like Jimmy, I felt sick and heartbroken by the tragedy. But something he said stood out to me:
There’s probably no way to ever know why a human being could do something like this to other human beings.
Sadly, researchers know a lot about why human beings—particularly men—do things like this.
Why Mass Shootings Keep Happening
It’s tempting to say the mass shooter’s motive was simply ‘pure evil,’ or to blame the media or guns, but that absolves us of looking deeply at what each of us—as individuals, family members, friends, and community members—might be missing.
Now, I’m not a psychiatrist. And I don’t know much about the Vegas shooter. I’m just a guy who studies mental health. Again, this is not a political post about guns, for the same reason it’s not a political post about weaponized cars. Easy access to guns is a part of the problem, but I’m not as interested in the tool as I am in what causes a man to use it so destructively.
Nor is this a post in defense of the shooter, or to make him sound like a victim in any way. What he did was a horrific act. He is a murderer, and he is not excused from this by any stretch (though I truly feel sympathy for the shooter’s brother, who seemed to be totally caught off guard by this behavior, and now he has to deal with the aftermath for the rest of his life).
The goal of this post is simply to shine a light on what’s eroding men’s emotional health.
1. Men in the United States are Chronically Lonely
Boys in the United States—just like all human beings—need touch, caring, warmth, empathy, and close relationships. But as we grow up, most of us lose those essential components of our humanity. What’s worse: we have no idea how to ask for those things, or admit we need them, because we’re afraid it will make us look weak.
As a man, you might be thinking, “Not me, I’ve got drinking buddies. I play poker with the guys. I’ve got friends.” But do you have confidants? Do you have male friends who you can actually be vulnerable with? Do you have friends whom you can confide in, be 100% yourself around, that you can hug without saying “No homo,” without feeling tense or uncomfortable while you’re doing it?
For many men, the answer is ‘no.’ So, we spend our time posturing instead.
Our Misperception of the ‘Real Man’
From an early age, we have an unhealthy ideal of masculinity that we try to live up to. Part of that ideal tells us that real men do everything on their own. Real men don’t cry. Real men express anger through violence. The by-product is isolation. Most men spend the majority of their adult lives without deeper friendships, or any real sense of community. Not to mention a complete inability to release anger or sadness in a healthy way.
There is a fantastic documentary called The Mask You Live In, which explains how boys in our society are ultimately shaped into mentally unstable adults. My friend Ryan recommended this film to me, after confiding that he cried throughout the entire thing. I cried, as well. Simon Sinek echoed similar insights on Glenn Beck’s show:
We’re seeing a rise of loneliness and isolation. No one kills themselves when they’re hungry; we kill ourselves when we’re lonely. And we act out, as well.
In the 1960s, there was one school shooting.
In the 1980s, there were 27.
In the 1990s, there were 58.
In the past decade, there have been over 120.
It has nothing to do with guns, it has to do with people feeling lonely.
How do we combat the loneliness that kids are feeling? All of them attacked people in their own community, and all of them attacked people they blamed for their own loneliness.
This loneliness compounds as men grow older. Without deeper friendships or a strong sense of community, the isolation is soul-deadening and maddening. You are alone.
Any slight from someone you care about can feel emotionally traumatizing. After enough rejections and feeling like an outcast, you begin to believe that people are just cruel and not worth the effort. You perceive people as threats.
And the effects on our health are devastating. Here is Dr. Dean Ornish, the founder of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute, on the effects of loneliness:
I am not aware of any other factor—not diet, not smoking, not exercise, not stress, not genetics, not drugs, not surgery—that has a greater impact on our incidence of illness, and [chance of] premature death.
Before we ask, “How could he do such a thing?” we have to understand how that person felt on a daily basis, and how those feelings grew over the years.
2. Men in the United States are Deprived of Play Opportunities
You might be offended by this suggestion.
How could this guy talk about play after a shooting?! Play is for kids! Wrong.
Homo sapiens play more than any other species. It’s impossible to prevent a human from playing. We play shortly after we are born, and the healthiest (and least stressed) humans tend to play for their entire lives. Play may be God’s greatest gift to mankind. It’s how we form friendships, and learn skills, and master difficult things that help us survive. Play is a release valve for stress, and an outlet for creativity. Play brings us music, comedy, dance, and everything we value.
Above all, play is how we bond with each other—it’s how we communicate, “I am safe to be around, I am not a threat.” Play is how we form connections with other humans.
The irony is that loneliness would not be a problem if we all got ample time to play. Not only would we have deeper friendships, we’d also have better relationships with ourselves. Play allows us to enjoy our own company.
There is a strong correlation with play deprivation and mental illness. When you deprive mammals of play, it leads to chronic depression. When you deprive a human child of play, their mental and emotional health deteriorate. Play suppression has enormous health consequences. “But the Vegas shooter loved to gamble! He went on cruises!” That’s not the type of play I’m talking about. To better understand this dynamic, we need to look at the background of another mass shooter.
In 1966, Charles Whitman shot his wife and mother. Then, he climbed up the tower at the University of Texas in Austin, and shot 46 people. In total, he murdered 16 people. At the time, this was the biggest mass shooting of its kind in United States history.
Dr. Stuart Brown and his team of researchers were commissioned to find out what ‘The Texas Sniper’ had in common with other mass murderers. They gained a key insight when they examined their childhoods. Brown recalls:
None of them engaged in healthy rough-and-tumble play. The linkages that lead to Charles Whitman producing this crime was an unbelievable suppression of play behavior throughout his life by a very overbearing, very disturbed father.
Healthy and joyful play must be had in order to thrive. Boys need to wrestle with their dads, and they need to roughhouse with other boys. Parents and teachers need to play with their kids. But more importantly, they need to encourage those kids to go out and play. And then, let them be. “It’s 10 o’clock. Do you know where your kids are?” Ever since that famous ad aired, parents have shamed each other into watching their kids like a hawk. If you let your kid walk up the street alone, you’ll either get a call from another parent, or the cops will pick them up. Our kids are stripped of their right to experience life on their own terms.
In an effort to improve our kids’ test scores and beef up their future resumes, we’ve stripped away nearly all of their free play opportunities. Recess has been sacrificed in the name of Scantrons, and pills are prescribed to the kids whose bodies and minds cry out for play.
The result: A generation of the most anxious, depressed, and suicidal American children on record.
This is in alignment with Dr. Peter Gray’s research, who studied the epidemic of mental illness and the decline in play:
Over the past half century, in the United States and other developed nations, children’s free play with other children has declined sharply. Over the same period, anxiety, depression, suicide, feelings of helplessness, and narcissism have increased sharply in children, adolescents, and young adults… The decline in play has contributed to the rise in the psychopathology of young people.
This is why I believe mental illness may be the biggest health crisis of our lifetimes. Because those kids will grow up into isolated adults who don’t know how to play, or seek out their friends when they are lonely. They have no emotional support. They are alone.
In the most memorable chapter of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, the author describes the research of James Gilligan, a young psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School in the 1970s. Gilligan was invited to make sense of the prisons and mental hospitals in Massachusetts, where he interviewed murderous inmates. He included in his notebook this heartbreaking observation:
They would all say that they themselves had died before they started killing other people… They felt dead inside. They had no capacity for feelings. No emotional feelings. Or even physical feelings. Universal among the violent criminals was the fact that they were keeping a secret. A central secret. And that secret was that they felt ashamed—deeply ashamed, chronically ashamed, acutely ashamed. I have yet to see a serious act of violence that was not provoked by the experience of feeling shamed or humiliated, disrespected and ridiculed.
All of us will face difficult times in our lives where we will experience shame, humiliation, disrespect, and ridicule. Do you know what gets us through those hard times? Friendship: The love and support you get, from the people you play with.
Whatever the case, these factors about mass shooters are often true:
- They are deeply lonely. They have no significant friendships to rely on, and very few quality people to confide in.
- They experienced ongoing play deprivation. Their innate ability was crippled, and they struggle to maintain a healthy emotional connection with themselves and others.
- They are deeply ashamed. They experienced extreme ridicule, rejection, or humiliation.
Are there other factors at play here? Absolutely. Mass shootings are complex, and so are people. They don’t fit perfectly into our narratives. Do the above three factors always lead to murderous behavior? Of course not. But over time, they destroy an individual’s emotional health. And that’s the point.
We’ve created a culture where the first two factors—loneliness and play deprivation—affect everyone. And because friendship struggles to take root in this environment, we are more likely to be struck by the third factor—shame.
Even though we’re in the safest period in the history of civilization, these shootings will keep happening in America. They happen every single day. Guns are a part of the problem, and so is the media. But there is a bigger problem: We are a culture that continually neglects the emotional health of our boys, and our men.
The good news is that you, as an individual, can make a difference. Reach out to someone who you think could be lonely, and invite them to do something fun together. Keep inviting them. Build trust, and confide in each other. Set the example by being a safe and supportive person to be around. If you’ve noticed their personality has drastically changed, invite them out for several hours. Be there for them. You could save their life.
To donate to the Las Vegas Victims Relief Fund, click here.