Does Lyme disease make you shoot people?

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.

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See, now this is something that wouldn't really occur to me to question. I was certainly unfamiliar with the idea that Lyme disease could cause psychotic breaks, but what do I know?


The first time I heard Lyme disease cited as a possible cause of violent behavior was a few weeks ago: Travis the chimp in Connecticut who mauled a woman and was then shot. His Lyme disease was offered up as a guess about why he attackede.

Yeah, bizarre...i would think the fact that he was a wild animal would be enough.

I wish to god that I had enough money to fly to Illinois to testify for the man accused of killing his pastor. I also suffer from Lyme disease and unless you have it or have had it you could not possibly understand the horrors of what this disease does to your mind and body. The testing for Lyme disease is so unreliable a great number of people go undiagnosed for years as did I. By the time I was properly diagnosed and treated it was too late.I now suffer from seizures, hallucinations heart problems,unexplained horrible rage, and at one point I lost my memory. I forgot my name and my sons name, I lost my hearing and part of my vision, etc.

By linda huyler (not verified) on 10 Mar 2009 #permalink

Doc, you seriously need to research a topic before you offer up your opinion for all to see. Read the comments above this one, from linda huyler, and my own testimony that mirrors hers. I, too, have been afflicted, and (to your credit) no one would believe the startling range and severity of symptoms possible, if they did not either suffer it themselves, or live with someone who does.

I can tell you right now that there were many nights I came near to blowing my own head off, just to stop the pain. Rage - hell, yes, at anyone, anything & everything. When it hits, there is nothing you can do to stop it (probably because it has effectively shut off most of your frontal lobe, besides hyper-activating other areas). I sincerely urge you to research this. READ the accounts of thousands of others with similar stories. If you really care at all, there are thousands of cases wherever you might practice, anywhere in the country, where you could see it first-hand, and maybe even do some good.

This is a very real problem, it's getting worse (even official CDC estimates say over 200,000 new cases/year), and you will see many more such stories before any serious effort is made to reform the pathetic atmosphere which pervades this subject within the medical community.

There's also a good-sized cottage industry around so-called "Chronic Lyme Disease." This is not actual Lyme Disease, as noted by symptoms, which has a treatment that is usually effective.
Quick and dirty, gut-level : No, I don't think he killed due to Lyme disease symptoms. Further data required, however.