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So I was working with someone from a different University on a project and I have started to become very concerned about their mental and physical well-being.

The messages which they sent me a day before came across as paranoid, saying that he believed that one of his colleagues had hacked his laptop and was following all his activities, just for the purpose of knowing whether they had secretly been getting guidance from someone else to help him write his papers in order to bully him and harass him.

Today he stated that he was no longer able to continue working with me on the project because of this harassment from colleagues. Again, the messages were quite concerning: for example, talk of not having been able to sleep for 36 hours and fear of dying in 'terrible suffering', but furthermore that one of his colleagues is poisoning his food so that he is unable to sleep and that he is really scared of dying because of not being able to sleep.

My first thought was to write to his graduate school where he works as a postdoc and state that I am concerned about his mental health and make a suggestion that his workload be lightened and that he be given the opportunity to speak with a mental health professional. Also, that perhaps there could be some words had about the culture of 'banter' and 'jokes', since he obviously takes these jokes very badly although perhaps they are not intended to be harmful (to be clear, I am a student and have no power in enforcing this, it's just a suggestion I want to make).

However, I am not sure how best to phrase this email (or even exactly what I should say) without 'getting them into trouble' or making it look like 'I am telling on them' or giving away confidential information. Also, who should the email be sent to? Again, I don't want to make things worse, but I feel like this is genuinely concerning and that someone should say something to prevent the situation escalating.

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The first step is to work to convince them to seek professional help, both for their emotional state and for any perceived improper actions of others. Tell them that the "fear of dying" suggests that they should visit a counselor, perhaps at the university, and work through the issue.

Don't start, however, with notifying other authorities yourself (caveat below) as you don't know what that might trigger at their university. You might be making their problems worse.

The caveat is the situation in which they suggest they might harm another person. Then you need to contact that person, if possible, or some authority. As I understand it, that is the same sort of action that a professional would be required to take.

I don't have advice, unfortunately, for the case in which they say they will harm themself. A trained counselor will have a solution I think. I don't know the ethics of contacting authorities in that situation.

But start with them. Don't try to counsel them yourself, as you don't have the training. But try to get them to seek the help they need themselves.

  • I'm not sure what to say to them, as they have already said people think he is paranoid when he is not: I have say to him that he might consider speaking to a professional obviously he will know that I think that he is exhibiting paranoid symptoms, is there some particularly gentle way I could make the suggestion? – Tom Jul 24 '20 at 19:52
  • Ah OK, I see you have mentioned the 'fear of dying' thing, I could use that as the main reason to suggest they seek professional help. – Tom Jul 24 '20 at 19:53
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    If you seriously think someone is going to harm themselves you absolutely should contact someone (anyone who you think is able to physically go and see the person in danger) to try and stop that happening. I would suggest calling the police if you have to, but I understand in some countries that is not always a safe option. – astronat Jul 24 '20 at 20:15
  • As far as I am currently aware, the person has given no suggestion that they are in danger or that they are putting anyone else in danger, but I can keep observing to see if that changes. – Tom Jul 24 '20 at 20:18
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    If you look at the data, police misconduct far less likely than suicide. afsp.org/suicide-statistics washingtonpost.com/graphics/2019/national/police-shootings-2019 – Anonymous Physicist Jul 25 '20 at 12:50
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  1. If this person might be a danger to themselves or others, call emergency services. If you are concerned about someone, ask them directly if they are planning suicide.
  2. Otherwise encourage them to seek help from a mental health professional.
  3. Be supportive.
  4. Sign up for mental health first aid training. Many universities provide it for free.

It might be appropriate to discuss the person's mental health with their family or friends, ideally with the person's consent. It would not be appropriate to discuss it with their colleagues or supervisors.

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