As the debate regarding gun control begins anew; I’d like to renew the debate on toxic masculinity. I too want to advocate for our right to bear arms.
Teachers, parents, social workers, administrators, and peers, must be armed with proper coping skills. Schools and communities must be armed with qualified mental health professionals. Parents must be armed with people and places to go to for help. You must be armed with the desire and skill to be meaningfully involved in the lives of youth. Arm our young men (and women) with a ridiculous amount of resources to cope with whatever life brings. I challenge the United States of America to bear those arms. Moreover, I challenge the president to bear those arms.
I, like many of you, am outraged at the recent school shooting in Parkland, Fla. It is the same outrage that we feel with all of these; be it Columbine, Newtown, and countless others. We are tired of being outraged at all the violence perpetrated by young men. We are simply out of rage and tears. It has long been time for action. That is why the brave students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School who have shown us how to turn rage into activism with their “lie-in” and voices are to be more than commended.
Although, I am not opposed to gun law reform, I think it is an inadequate solution at best. Just like anything else that is illegal, people will find a way to create and access a market for banned guns and accessories. The type of reform that I am talking about involves reforming how we think about and support mental health. This most recent shooting is part of a much broader problem: our failure to guide and support young men. Given all of the research on the emotional fragility of boys and the hyper-masculine culture in which boys must develop, another disturbed male shooter should come as no surprise. I do not presume to know all of the details surrounding the shooter, however; chances are he fits the following profile: emotionally disturbed, socially awkward, relationally isolated, and teased or bullied.
Many of you will not be impressed with the above characteristics and probably said “duh” after reading each one. Perhaps what is more profound is that schools, parents, communities, and you (yes, you) do nothing with this knowledge. That is, the population of boys (and their parents) that we need to support is clearly identifiable, however; they are not adequately supported. What we also know is that being in meaningful relationships matters. That is, when responsible adults are in caring relationships with boys; boys are better able to deal with stress and cope in more acceptable and productive ways.
Study after study demonstrates that relationships matter. Moreover, violence perpetrated by males is often a form of overcompensating for vulnerability. Relationships not only buffer stress, but they also serve as a means of connection to resources.
I also speak from experience. As an adolescent growing up in North Philadelphia, drug dealing and gun violence had its appeal. However, because of meaningful relationships and exposure to alternatives; I wanted more. Because of meaningful relationships, I was exposed to more, challenged to be more, and supported to meet the challenge. If you want to see the outcomes for boys (and men) change in society — expose, challenge, and support. Expose boys to healthy representations of masculinity. Challenge boys to cope and respond to stress adaptively. Provide the emotional support that we all need to be better. And if need be, connect youth with professional help. In the absence of these three things; there will undoubtedly be more of the same.
I dare parents, businesses, community organizations, religious organizations; institutions of higher education to become more involved in the lives of youth, in particular boys. If you want to move beyond the emotional roller coaster of apathy, outrage and sorrow, become a mentor, volunteer in a local classroom, join Big Brothers/Big Sisters. The truth is there is no safe place. No community is immune. This is not a black, Hispanic, white, Asian, or poor people problem. Mental health maintenance is an American problem. And until we move beyond outrage and sorrow into meaningful relationships and supports, boys (and men) will continue to cry out for attention in the most disastrous of ways.
In this instant age of tweets and Facebook friends, I am calling for old-school engagement. For some, this approach may seem too simplistic. The power of the idea is its simplicity — get involved wherever you can. And for others, it may appear too overwhelming. I am not asking you to get a degree in counseling. Become involved in ways that make sense for you. You have options and control. Many programs provide training and many opportunities require little to no training. It will not solve all of our problems, but it will undoubtedly make a difference in the lives of many — just as it did for me and countless others.
Chad Dion Lassiter, MSW, is the president of Black Men at Penn School of Social Work, Inc. @chadlassiter