A mental health/academic support quandary
October 4, 2009 8:30 PM   Subscribe

I have some information which may be critical to my friend's future/safety, but I obtained it in a somewhat dubious way. I'd just like to hear your thoughts on the position I'm in.

So my friend has major, chronic mental illness--major depression and probably Borderline Personality Disorder, among other things--and tends to self-destructive behavior, including one past suicide attempt and many threats. He's studying for a standardized grad school admission test, which is critical to his future (he has unique opportunities this year). He's studying using an online course, and is taking the test in just a week or two. He claims that he's reasonably far along in the materials, but that he hasn't touched any of the practice tests yet.

For various reasons (mostly past behavior and a shifty disposition on the topic), I had a very strong suspicion that he wasn't actually keeping up with his work. Anything that wrecks his chances of getting into grad school this year would be a suicide trigger for him--he's made that much clear--so I'm very concerned that on some level he's knowingly sabotaging this so that he has an alibi for desires he admittedly already contends with day-to-day.

So here's the sketchy part: I figured out the password to his online coursework, and found that indeed, he's done practically nothing, and last logged in over a month ago, but he did do the non-written parts of the initial practice test, and got something really low (around the 30th percentile). I don't necessarily take that score to mean much, because he may have just been blowing through the first test to get a feel for the difficulty level, but I am highly concerned by the fact that he doesn't seem to be studying. The only reason I sunk to this is that there's at least some small possibility that a life is at stake.

One monkey wrench is that a large portion of the study work for the course (I think a safe majority) is in the books, so it's conceivable that he's moving along OK in those and he's just lying for whatever reason about how much he's bothering with the online work. I can't think of much of a motivation for that, except that I know he wants me not to worry too much about him, so perhaps he's glossing over the details for my sake.

Eventually I will come clean with all this, but I think it's also dangerous to subject him to the stress of the revelation right now. In the future, when he's in a relative upswing in terms of mental health, I think he'll likely interpret it as a justified intervention; right now, of course, it'd probably feel like at least somewhat of a betrayal. Is there any subtler way I could try to steer this situation without blowing my cover? And, more than that, do you guys have any general thoughts about what to do from here that might be more coherent than my own?

I'm sure I'll get at least a few critical responses about what I've chosen to do so far. I myself am somewhat morally conflicted about it, but understand that there are more nuances to the background of this than I've included here, and I'm about 95% sure that my friend will ultimately be grateful that I did this.

Any private responses can go to askme.alter.oct09@gmail.com. Thanks so much in advance!
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (18 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
If his mental state hinges on grad school admissions, he should not be applying to grad school, period. I can't say this strongly enough. If he'd attempt suicide over a bad GRE (or whatever) score, what's to say he wouldn't over a tough assignment or a bad grade? Seriously, a competitive academic assignment is NOT the place for fragile people.

Moral issues aside, you should make sure he's getting decent mental health care (doesn't sound like he is) and provide him with the resources to get in touch with a good therapist if he doesn't already have one.
posted by oinopaponton at 8:36 PM on October 4, 2009 [8 favorites]

It doesn't matter how well he does on the test, and the information you have probably won't be all that useful as an additional convincing tool. What you need to do - and I'm seconding oinopaponton here - is to get him focused on getting treated for his issues, and either convince him or have a mental health professional convince him that grad school can wait. It seems very likely that he will bomb the test regardless, so this strikes me as the only viable option.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 8:50 PM on October 4, 2009

You logged in to see if he did the work? MYOB.

As the first poster said, grad school is NOT for your friend. It puts the mentally stable into therapy and medication.
posted by k8t at 8:50 PM on October 4, 2009

PS, maybe focus on telling him how acceptance rates are terrible now. No one is getting in with all the undergrads going straight in and unemployed going back, and funding going away.
posted by k8t at 8:53 PM on October 4, 2009

I have some information which may be critical to my friend's future/safety

Well, you crossed an ethical boundary here to be sure, but I think you're also crossing an involvement and responsibility boundary as well. You have to take a deep breath and remember that you are not actually responsible for your friend's life. You care about him, and you don't want him to be at risk, but you can't control even this one potential trigger let alone any arbitrary suicide trigger he may have that you don't eve know about.

Learn how to be there for your friend without being your friend's superhero.
posted by dhartung at 9:07 PM on October 4, 2009 [6 favorites]

Setting aside the ethics of this, it's clear that you want to help and realize the sensitive situation he is in. You've already avoided the first of the "Things Not To Do". So it's also clear that, as you point out, it would be dangerous to tell him. Not just now, but in my opinion, ever. He doesn't need to know this and it can be destabilizing to hear of an invasion of privacy at any time. I do not have the same confidence you have that he will ultimately be grateful you did this. If there's any chance he could react negatively, don't talk about it. One of the key "Things Not To Do" that mental health professionals stress is: Don't make the person feel shame. And if you're not in in his head, you have no way of knowing whether this would make him ashamed or not.

Steering things is also fraught with risk, aside from the risk of you talking about this past action. Another "Thing Not To Do" is: Don't think you can fix things on your own. The desire to do all you can may be strong but it can lead to situations where the person can feel manipulated, or feel they are in even less control, which can feed the problem. One more "Thing Not To Do" is: Don't make promises you can't keep, so trying to steer things is also risky this way; putting yourself in the 'leadership' role and having things not work out can lead to them feeling let down.

So what to do?

Listen and express concern in a nonjudgmental way. Then listen some more.
Take action! Get the individual connected with professional help.
Ask questions openly ("Do you have a plan? Will you talk with someone who can help?")
Show that you care.

The first link (the one where the "Things Not To Do" came from) is a handout focused on aboriginal community supports, but its Do and Don't lists apply just as well other places. It's clearly written and I would recommend it highly to you, especially the 'Staying Involved' section at the end.
posted by Hardcore Poser at 9:15 PM on October 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

(The first of the "Things Not To Do" being, "Don't Ignore the Situation." Forgot that part.)

There are other lists of don'ts such as this one.
posted by Hardcore Poser at 9:19 PM on October 4, 2009

He isn't in a strong enough place to take advantage of his 'unique opportunities' right now.
Tell him him that he doesn't actually have to do this. He's probably all keyed up and stressed and will fail the test and feel terrible, all because he was trying to take the test at a bad place in his life.

There are often ways to defer or reschedule or walk away from these things but leave the door open to walk back through. He should figure out (probably with your help) how to do that.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 10:16 PM on October 4, 2009

The real issue here has nothing to do with the stupid test, grad school, or your hacking his account. Regardless of whether or not you have some 'proof of need' you should be there for your friend. Hang out with him, talk to him, find out what his latest concerns are. Just be there and be a friend. That's going to be one of the biggest and best things you can do. All the stuff he'll weather, especially with a caring support system. Don't mention your indiscretion, just talk and listen and celebrate when he realizes that not going to grad school is a blessing in disguise.
posted by iamkimiam at 10:33 PM on October 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Unless you're his mental health care professional, I really doubt the the accuracy, validity, or value of your armchair diagnosis. It's admirable that you care for your friend's well-being, but you have clearly crossed a number of boundaries here. Graduate school is definitely not for the fragile, but it's not really for you to say whether or not your friend would succeed.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 10:39 PM on October 4, 2009

from the original poster
Some replies to the posts so far (as of 10:00PM PST Sunday):

I'm well aware of the inherently problematic nature of his applying for grad school at all in this state of mind. But there are some particulars to realize: he won't be in school for another year or so (he's currently taking a few undergrad courses to make up some requirements), and having some positive progress in his life to look forward to is a definite plus. If he had suspended all of his academic efforts every time he got in a state of mind this bad, or one where his stability was contingent upon his success, he would have never made it through college. It's a weird line to walk, but from where I stand it seems like having some real-life progress to focus on actually has some serious positive aspects for his well-being. At any rate, it'd be very hard to change his attitude in time for this test not to matter; the best I can do right now is try to help it work out OK.

His chances of getting in where he wants to go (if he does better than awfully on this test) are actually pretty solid; he has a professor there with whom he's been doing extensive lab work. They've co-authored a paper, my friend is first author, and they'll be presenting it at a pretty significant conference. The fact that grad school tends to be a rat's nest for mental health is not lost on me; but again, the question of whether he should even be looking to go there doesn't seem to come into play much at the moment.

As to whether he's just pretending to stake a lot on this, I really don't think so; I've been pretty mellow about the entire process, until the last few days when I've "spontaneously" started to get really inquisitive about his progress, but he's been pretty intense about it the whole time. I'm much more happy just to know he's stable and OK than any particular accomplishment, and he knows that.

Thanks for all the replies so far! While of course this is still an ultra-vague and frustrating situation for me, as I expected merely having some sane people talk about the matter has put me a bit more at ease and I'll feel a little more comfortable with whatever I decide.
posted by mathowie at 11:14 PM on October 4, 2009

Why go through all the BS of hacking into his computer to snoop thought his work? Can't you simply state your concerns to him, see what his response is and offer your help as he requests?

There's an old saying. "The road to hell is paved with good intentions." In your efforts to save/help/protect your friend you risk damaging your friendship. You obviously value your friendship, but learn where to draw the line.

You can't control your friend. You can only control yourself and your actions. Be a friend. The rest will take care of itself.
posted by quadog at 11:47 PM on October 4, 2009

including one past suicide attempt and many threat

Assuming you didn't pull "BPD" completely out of your ass, it's been my experience that BPD can manifest in talk of suicide "attempts" and "threats" as a means of manipulation and to draw attention. Unless you know something concrete about this previous "attempt," I'd discount it as much as the "threats" to commit suicide if he doesn't get into grad school.

But of course, you say "BPD or major depression," so you probably did pull these diagnoses out of thin air and a few scraps of lay knowledge, or else you're letting him tell you what's wrong. (Another sign of BPD, in my experience, along with endless threats to kill oneself, is the endless ability to make up bullshit to your friends and caregivers -- and just about anyone else who will listen -- about what doctors have told you. Or not.)

Mind you, I'm not saying one should not always take suicidal ideation seriously. But your level of dramatic worry as a justification for you doing something utterly unethical and counterproductive is not reasonable.

Everyone above is right. If this guy is really that close to the edge that you fear for his safety if he flubs the GRE, he has NO BUSINESS in graduate school and I doubt very much that one year of deferment will solve these issues for him. Not only will he suffer. Everyone around him will suffer from his presence. I've dealt with a handful of seriously mentally ill graduate students in my teaching career. It almost never ends well; even when it does, it almost never ends in a PhD or an academic career.

I'm going to be harsher than the rest of the responses. You fucked up by hacking his account; you had no business doing that and your justifications for doing it are self serving or co-dependent at best. Mind your own business. Don't play doctor. And don't indulge a sustained "threat" to commit suicide. If he's suicidal, he needs help and should be hospitalized. If any failure or setback could actually lead to his death, he shouldn't be risking failure or setbacks right now.

Regardless of his intelligence or qualifications or connections, if he's as seriously mentally ill as you seem to think, he has no business in grad school right now. But you also have no business hacking his test account.
posted by fourcheesemac at 3:29 AM on October 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

Also, I suggest you examine your "friendship" here. Again, in my experience only (and I will state for the record that I am not a physician, only an academic who has dealt with several BPD-diagnosed students over the years), many diagnosed with BPD seek out "hero" types who will drop everything to attend to their perceived crises and needs, listen to their talk of suicide, and become invested in "helping." You sound like you've fallen into that role, which is not only not going to help him, but is going to end up making you miserable.
posted by fourcheesemac at 3:38 AM on October 5, 2009 [4 favorites]

he has a professor there with whom he's been doing extensive lab work

You've made some mistakes, but I think you know that. If you are worried, you need to take a different action than what you've been doing so far. You are both in your first years of quasi-independent living (I assume), and young adults, so it is hard to know what to do when something like this comes up -- it's big, scary, important, and probably you've not faced it before.

Because of that, I urge you to get another adult involved, someone with some years under their belt. I was going to suggest randomly that their title might be dean of student affairs, school doctor, or parent. But then, I saw your note about his professor and I think that might be the right person to help, because he has an ongoing relationship with your friend.

Go to the professor and lay it out. You are worried. He's depressed. You don't think he's preparing for the test. He's suicidal. Ask for his help. Unless you are a psychologist/psychiatrist, leave aside your attempts at diagnosing your friend (major depressive with a side order of BPD). Don't mention you hacking into his computer and snooping to find out what progress he's made on his work -- your mistake should be your albatross.

Let me explain that last bit.
  • Your ideas of what his diagnosis should be is not helpful. It may mean something entirely different to the professor, and thus may inadvertently point to things that aren't there. Talk about your friend's symptoms, not diagnosis.
  • Your computer hacking was inappropriate, but what you found does not add important information to what you already knew. If he's suicidal, that will not be remedied by passing a test. The only reason to bring up your mistake would be to get "pardoned" for it, or to come off as heroic. The discussion should not be about you, but about your friend. If you need to alleviate guilt, go to confession, talk with a counselor, unburden on your friends, or write in a journal. If you need to feel heroic, you can do many of the same things. Your discussion with the professor should only be about your friend, not you.

posted by Houstonian at 5:41 AM on October 5, 2009

I have some information which may be critical to my friend's future/safety...

I don't think you do. You have been able to find out how he might be doing. But that is information he already has, and has a more accurate version of. So really you have no useful information to give him.

What you meant to say is that you're worried about your friend not doing well on the exam, and you want to know if there is anything you can do to encourage him. Beyond ordinary friendship (being supportive, letting him know you're available to help), there probably isn't.
posted by mdn at 5:41 AM on October 5, 2009 [3 favorites]

You're trying to control a situation that you can't control. This does not bode well for the controller or the controlee. Your friend needs professional help, and if he refuses to get it, there is not much you can do other than be encouraging and supportive. You realize you can't change his attitude; you can't change his actions either. Even if you could 100% guarantee that he will study hard and do well on this test, there will be something else down the road that you cannot guarantee, or even foresee. He needs to take responsibility for his mental health, and that is really the only thing that you can help him with.
posted by desjardins at 12:18 PM on October 5, 2009

Your issue may already be resolved by now, but I just want to speak as a person who has been diagnosed with BPD and slowly crawled my way to health: I had a constant crisis/threat of suicide period as well and as much as I hate to admit it, I used that behavior as a way to manipulate others into not leaving me. I was always looking for a hero, as other posters have said. I personally doubt you self-diagnosed him with BPD, as that's not really the type of disorder your average armchair psychologist bandies about, and your description of his behavior seems fairly pattern-typical. You won't want to hear or do this, but the best thing for your friend's health, if what you want is for him to be independent, whole, stable, is for you to draw back emotionally. Once it's gotten to the point that you're snooping in his personal business like this (even if he subconsciously wants you to do it), the boundaries between you are gone, and unless he's someone you want to spend the rest of your life rescuing, there is a very rude and possibly deadly awakening hanging over your heads that will grow more certain with each passing day. BPD sufferers have a 10% chance of suicide regardless. If he does it or does not do it, that is his choice and trust me, if I had done it I wouldn't have wanted the person who played you in my life to feel responsible. The thing is, the right thing to do probably involves a square one redesign/dismantling of your relationship, which is something you probably don't want to face and that's why you asked in the first place. I wish I had something more prettier to tell you...
posted by dissolvedgirl22 at 4:06 PM on January 13, 2010

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