Now, I have to remember that being a health care worker in the acute setting means that I see the worst of the worst--people at their most acute and sickest. Even then, while there is violence in the ER and elsewhere in the hospital, most of it is related to illicit drug and alcohol abuse and the inappropriate use of prescriptions. Studies have shown that the majority of the mentally ill are mainly dangerous to themselves, as they engage in self harm behaviors and suicide attempts.
The things that attract news coverage--the man biting the dog that gets eyeballs and internet hits--they are the very worst actions the mentally ill can do. Like the schizophrenic man in New York who pushed a woman to her death in the subway. (Google Andrew Goldstein and/or Kendra Webdale if you are not familiar with the case.) In a way, it is amazing that most people who struggle with mental illness are just trying to cope, trying to get from one day to the next in their lives, do not have violent episodes and most do willingly seek help when things are spinning out of their control. I wish I could tell you about every patient who looked me in the eye and said, "I want help, I'll do whatever you need me to do, I'll wait, I'll get blood drawn, I'll pee in the cup. I know it's the right thing for me to do." Even patients with very distressing symptoms such as hearing voices or feeling paranoid will sit still for the slow hospital machine to move so they can get the help they need.
So here is my message, and hear it please. The majority of people with mental illness, even the mental illnesses considered most acute and severe--schizophrenia and bipolar disorder (manic depression)--are NOT violent and NOT to be feared.
They are just folks, looking to make their way through life as best they can. Most of them can use a friend, someone to talk with, someone who is not afraid to sit by them in public, someone who will greet them at church or at the store. They have a chronic problem that sometimes has acute crises. This does not make them any less human or, to put it theologically, any less of God's loved creation.