Recently, my local community experienced a tragedy in which a woman who had suffered for decades with untreated schizophrenia fatally shot a police officer. While it is true that certain mental illnesses can result in erratic, occasionally violent behavior (especially when drug or alcohol abuse is involved) violence by mentally ill persons is a tiny fraction of the violence committed in this country. Elder Morrison writes, “The truth is that the vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent, and the great majority of crimes of violence are not caused by persons who are mentally ill.” In fact, research indicates that rather than being perpetrators of violence, people suffering from mental illness are far more likely than the general population to be victims of violent crimes.
While cases of violence by mentally ill persons are no more common than violence by non-mentally ill persons, they are covered heavily by the news media and frequently dramatized in television, movies, and literature—reinforcing stigmatizing stereotypes. Popular images of the “murdering psycho” or “insane criminal mastermind” add to the stigma and embarrassment of mental illness, discouraging people from disclosing their condition or getting help—and leaving them feeling increasingly isolated and alone.
Not only are those with mental illness left feeling isolated, they actually become isolated, either through their own behavior or the behavior of others. In an unpublished paper, Jess Graner (2007) found that when people perceive that persons with mental illness are dangerous (regardless of actual behavior), they distance themselves from those who are mentally ill. I don’t know whether this might be why people seem to overlook “warning signs” before a violent incident, but I am becoming increasingly convinced that for people experiencing overwhelming delusional or disturbed thoughts, the combination of fear and isolation can be fatal.
With relatively small congregations (200-500 members) and programs such as home teaching and visiting teaching, ideally no one in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints should feel isolated and alone—yet some do. It may be a struggle, but by overcoming our own fears and biases in order to watch over each other, we may not just save souls, we may even save lives.
If you (or someone you know) are in danger of harming yourself or others, call for help immediately. Either call the National Suicide Prevention Line (1-800-273-8255) or your local emergency services (i.e., 911).