ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) - The 24-year-old Albuquerque resident who attacked fellow church members with a knife last week showed classic signs of a man out of touch with reality, according to mental health advocates and professionals.
"My first thought was, ‘That could have been prevented,'" said Patsy Romero, president of the New Mexico chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, an advocacy group. "‘How many times did that individual's family (try) to get help for that individual.' We see it every day."
Lawrence Capener is accused of repeatedly stabbing choir director Adam Alvarez inside the St. Jude Thaddeus Church in Albuquerque on April 28 because, according to police, he believed Alvarez was part of a secret society involved in a widespread conspiracy. The Cibola High School graduate lived with his mother, who was an active member of the church.
Capener had never been in trouble with the law before although three weeks ago he was fired from his job at the Dollar Tree for threatening to poke out his boss' eyes, according to a co-worker.
Romero said the attack was not that different from the Aurora, Colo., movie theater shooting last summer that left 12 dead and dozens wounded, or the Tucson, Ariz., attack the year before that killed six and left former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords gravely wounded.
Both those attacks were perpetrated by seemingly normal young men who had started to show signs of cracking before erupting in violence. That's a pattern that appears to fit Capener.
However, both Romero and Steven Adelsheim, director of the University of New Mexico's Center for Behavioral Health, said that despite those high-profile violent attacks that capture headlines, it's far more common for the mentally ill to be attacked themselves because they're living on the streets, in jails or prisons or just plain acting strangely.
"People with mental health conditions are at really very low-risk of committing violent acts," Adelsheim said. "In fact, people with mental health conditions are much more likely to be victims of violence."
On average, people first experiencing symptoms of mental illness suffer them for a year-and-a-half to two years before they get help.
"Colors look different to them, or they might start recognizing sounds in a different way," Adelsheim said. "Or (they) might wonder if they're hearing whispering, or if their brain is playing tricks on them."
And it often starts early, with half of all mental illnesses beginning by age 14. By age 24, 75 percent of mental illnesses have surfaced, so beginning to treat kids early is crucial.
"They may be confused, they may be scared, they may be ashamed, they may not want to tell their parents," he said. "We need to have effective models of screening and early intervention so when people are developing serious mental health conditions we can link them to services early."
But, for now, widespread screening programs are rare in the United States. For example, the New Mexico Legislature passed a bill to establish intervention teams to reach out to the mentally ill who are showing signs of trouble.
"People can recover," Adelsheim said. "People can have very productive and successful lives with serious mental illness. Treatment works."
However, Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed the bill because the program would have fallen under the state Department of Health instead of the Human Services Department.
"These are our neighbors, they're our families, they're our families, they're you cousins," Romero said. "They're everybody."
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