UBC nursing researcher John Oliffe has been studying men’s health for more than 20 years, focusing on the mental and physical challenges experienced by men in modern society. His most recent study focused on murder-suicides in North America and how these cases are linked to traditional masculine ideals and identities.
What got you interested in this topic?
One thing that struck me in my research is why most cases of murders followed by suicide have been committed by men. It’s a long-standing but not fully understood men’s health issue. I wanted to understand why it’s always men who commit these acts, what drives them to do so, and ultimately gain some insights on how we can quell something that is occurring all too often right now.
What cases did you include in your research?
We searched North American article databases, going back to 1989 through 2013, and eventually zeroed in on 45 murder-suicide cases reported during that period.
There were 32 U.S. cases and 13 Canadian cases. Many made major headlines: the Santa suit killer in Grapevine, Texas; the Columbine High, Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook shootings; and in Canada, the shootings at Ecole Polytechnique de Montreal. These men took other people’s lives—their spouses, families, co-workers, supervisors, fellow students or teachers—before taking their own lives, and guns were often their weapon of choice.
You found a few key themes running through these murder-suicides.
Common to most murder-suicides were mental illness and access to guns. Also prevalent were male perpetrators failing to achieve markers of masculine success oftentimes amid experiencing bullying or marginalisation. Within this context the key findings were:
Domestic desperation—where the men felt they were unable to provide economic security for their family and the future was bleak—was the most common, representing 27 cases.
Nine murder-suicides centred on workplace justice. The men had lost or were about to lose their jobs, or felt they were bullied or marginalised at work.
School retaliation was represented in another nine cases. These were men, often young men, who wanted payback on real or imagined bullying and other injustices.
But women experience crises and hardship too. Why is it that most murders and murder-suicides are committed by men?
Our research suggested that masculine identities and how they are informed by society and taken up by some men plays an important part in these violent acts. Men are expected to be competitive and assert power. It’s considered OK for guys to be aggressive, even to lose control or lose their temper—we pay to watch that in sports and in movies. You rarely see that behaviour depicted for women or idealized as feminine.
The other thing is that mental illness plays a part in many of these cases. It is hard to know the actual extent, because in a lot of cases there wasn’t an established pattern of mental illness. And that might be because the men weren’t really seeing a doctor or formally diagnosed and being treated. Women tend to be more connected and oriented to the health care system.
What changes would you like to see happen based on your findings?
We need to better diagnose mental illness in men and to support these individuals better. Men can be reluctant to go to the doctor, or they don’t know how to get seen by a specialist in mental health. So targeted men’s mental health services are important.
Supporting men’s mental health in the workplace is key and this should include strategies to help them adapt to constant changes in skill sets and the labour force in general.
In terms of depression and suicidal behaviours, my colleague, UBC psychiatry professor John Ogrodniczuk has developed an online resource, www.headsupguys.ca, for men at risk for or experiencing these mental health challenges. The project was developed thanks to funding from the Movember Foundation and it gives guys a roadmap for understanding what’s going on with them and practical information on what to do about it.
On a policy level, I believe restrictions on gun ownership are a central piece in stopping this epidemic of murder-suicides by men. Firearms were used in all the cases we reviewed, and guns have long been closely linked to masculinity. Yet research across different countries shows that the fewer guns there are in civilian hands, the lower the rates for murders, suicides, and murder-suicides.
“Men, Masculinities, and Murder-Suicide” was published November 2015 in the American Journal of Men’s Health. To download a copy, click here.