A pastor in Illinois was shot and killed over the weekend. A similar tragedy happened in my community many years ago. Religious leaders are very public figures and have an emotional connection with members of their communities, so I suppose it’s not so strange that they should be targets. Many of the cases I have read about over the years involved a mentally ill assailant, as it appears the Illinois case did. Mental illness doesn’t usually lead to violence, but one can certainly imagine how a particularly disturbing delusion could lead someone to violence. The American mental health system is abominable, and there is very little help for people with severe mental illness, so they often end up living untreated in the community.
Schizophrenia is one of the most devastating of mental illnesses, causing severe disturbances in cognition, delusions, and hallucinations. It is treatable to different degrees, but not curable. It occurs in about 1.1-1.5% of Americans, so it’s not all that uncommon. Other mental illnesses, such as bipolar disorder, can also be associated with episodes of psychosis, but not to the degree that schizophrenia is.
All this is is by way of introduction to the title story. The young man who killed the pastor (I leave out “allegedly” because I’m not a reporter or a lawyer, and he shot the man in front of a whole congregation of witnesses) was said by several news reports to have suffered from Lyme disease which caused him to behave strangely. Reportedly, he acquired it on a hunting trip 10-15 years ago.
We don’t have a lot of facts to work from but we can still critically evaluate what we do have. Does Lyme disease cause violent, psychotic behavior, and would any other disorder better describe the limited picture we have?
Early stage Lyme disease can be rarely associated with a meningitis, and I suppose that cold explain the report that he had been treated with anti-seizure medications. Late-stage Lyme disease can cause a recurrent arthritis, and can have some neurological manifestations such as cranial nerve palsies (such as facial drooping) or an axonal polyneuropathy (leading to weakness and tingling in the extremities). Psychosis is not a well-described manifestation of Lyme disease, although case reports do exist.
The few details we’ve been given point to his symptoms beginning in his teens. This picture, of a young man developing psychotic symptoms in young adulthood, progressing to a severe psychosis is much more consistent with a mental illness such as schizophrenia.
Now, for all we know, the pastor stole this guy’s dog, or insulted his mom. Playing guessing games about why a person kills another is very problematic. The reason to wade into this one is the hysterical headlines about Lyme disease. Late Lyme disease is frequently over-diagnosed, and receives blame for every imaginable symptom. Murder isn’t one of them, and reporting it this way is irresponsible.