I just don't want to get anyone killed.
August 7, 2013 12:11 PM   Subscribe

I’d like tips on dealing with strangers that are having a psychotic break, because I have to do so more often than average.

I work at a place where real scientific research happens, but it has a name that puts some specific and incorrect images into the general public’s mind. Let’s call it the Center for Genetic Modification. You get the idea—it’s not about what we do, it’s about the cool/futuristic/scary way it sounds.

Because of the name, we get a fair number of harmless crackpot phone calls and emails that are easy to sort out with the power of blandness. But sometimes, we get someone genuinely unstable who comes into the office and demands to see The Real Scientist Who Is In Charge Of This Place. They get sent to me, I get to hear about the government poisoning the planet with solar flares, at some point we call the police, the police never get to the office before they leave, we give a statement, rinse and repeat 8 months later with a different agitated person with paranoia coming through our doors.

I know there are people whose entire job is to engage/deflect/gauge psychological instability, and probably a few people like me for whom doing that is an unexpected but regular occurrence. Does anyone have any tips on dealing with these situations? I’m sure there are techniques for de-escalating agitation, but I have no training on the topic, and just saying “call the cops”, which is all the cops will say, is not helpful. Basically, I just want to keep them nearby so the cops can find them, without getting anyone killed in the meantime. I will mention that we’ve done some in-office drills for communicating problems to others and calling the cops unnoticed, it’s the interpersonal piece that I’d like help with. As I mentioned, I’m usually viewed as the Person That Can Help, so I end up bearing the brunt of the interpersonal piece. Books or articles or training materials would be helpful too.

(This question was inspired by the fact that today’s person left our office, unexpectedly hopped in a car parked illegally right outside the building, and came within inches of running over a police officer, construction workers, and summer camp kids. I'm having some guilt about the fact that I didn’t keep her in the office longer; the police were there about 45 seconds late.)

Also, any tips on decompressing after one of these interactions would be helpful. I know from the previous ones that I probably won’t sleep much tonight.
posted by tchemgrrl to Human Relations (50 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Maybe hire a security guard? JPL has guards, as do many private companies with DoD contracts. I think it's a bit careless of your company to think you can deal with these people.
posted by Ideefixe at 12:20 PM on August 7, 2013 [23 favorites]

Do you have funding for rent-a-cops?
posted by oceanjesse at 12:20 PM on August 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

My Dad the therapist, used to engage wackadoodles on a regular basis.

Once we were at Original Joes and some drunk kept saying how beautiful our family was, etc. My Dad just smiled and said, "Of course! Thank you, let me introduce you to my daughters, Lillian and Dorothy."

So my recommendation is that you go along with the crazy. Don't agree, just act as though the person is telling you something moderately interesting.

"My, that's interesting, do go on."

"Uh-huh, I see your point."

"You don't say."

This is also my side of the conversation with my chatty, snowshoe/Siamese cat, so you get the idea.

You are humoring said wackadoodle. If they leave of their own accord, that's fine, all the cops are going to do is shoo them away anyhow.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:21 PM on August 7, 2013 [4 favorites]

I assume that you workplace is part of a university? Honestly, I don't think you should be taking time out of your workday to deal with random members of the public unless it is specifically part of your job description. Your workplace needs a formalized system for how to handle these situations, and this system needs to be developed with experts, law enforcement, and the legal department of your institution. Because of this recent episode you may have enough leverage to get the powers-that-be give proper attention to the issue.

I don't want to make you feel more guilty, but how bad is it going to be when someone has a bad episode and harms one of your colleagues - a colleague who was trained, by you and others, to keep them "nearby"?
posted by stowaway at 12:23 PM on August 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

This really seems like a failure on the part of the gatekeeper at your office: the admin assistant, receptionist, office manager-- whoever is the person the 'visitors' initially talk to. People who are asking for "THE SCIENTIST" should never just be escorted back into offices. This might just be a weakness in the security of your company at large, but at the very least visitors should be required to provide a NAME of the person they are visiting and provide photo ID. If those things check out, the employee they are visiting should be called to come to the front desk/front door to escort them back.

Your company should also consider other security measures such as: key card entry, security guards, etc.

Everything in your question is basically moot at that point because the interaction wouldn't happen.
posted by Flamingo at 12:23 PM on August 7, 2013 [36 favorites]

I used to work for a free-to-the-public museum located on the campus of a major research university. I worked security. I worked the front desk. I answered the main phone line. I have dealt with my share of crackpots.

People would call and demand to speak to the Egyptologist about curses. People would get in arguments with me, with inanimate objects, with each other. One kid (I say kid, but he was probably in his mid 20s) started licking the doors and I had to get him to stop.

The way you deal with this is to flip around some pages in a notebook, run your finger down what appears to be a list of names, and say, "I'm so sorry, but Real Scientist appears to be out of the office today. Is there a message you'd like me to convey?" all while smiling pleasantly. Maybe even have a fake phone number to dial so you can "call upstairs" to see if Real Scientist is still in that meeting.

If your goal here is to actually get them to sit down so the police can intervene (which is fine and all, though I think your primary goal should be getting them to leave the premises), you could have a form for them to fill out. Something official-looking, on a designated clip board. Name, contact information, place to list their concerns about the government and the poisonings, etc. Explain that this is de rigueur for facetime with Real Scientist, so you can present an abstract on paper and deliver a proper brief to the Real Scientist Committee. Then while they're filling it out, you can make the call to the cops.
posted by phunniemee at 12:23 PM on August 7, 2013 [22 favorites]

Yes, and if it's not a university but is a private lab, the lab should be paying for security. Security guards are relatively cheap and a tax-deductible business expense.
posted by stowaway at 12:24 PM on August 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

I have no idea how relevant this is, but I once got a guy in meth psychosis to stay put and stop threatening us long enough for the cops to arrive by acting really, really, really concerned and interested in his story and asking him to write it down so I could send it to a journalist. He spent 45 minutes covering both sides of three pieces of paper with minute illegible scrawls. Is it possible that you could say "Oh my goodness, this sounds very concerning! Can you please write down your concerns so we can address them as soon as possible?"
posted by KathrynT at 12:25 PM on August 7, 2013 [9 favorites]

Nobody has any training in dealing with these situations except mental health professionals. Even police are not trained in dealing with them which is why calling the police is a bad idea unless, alas, they get violent and then it is never a solution that is good for anyone.

If you have dealt with a few then you already have some on-the-job training. Obviously it is never enough. Most of these people probably get some wrong information by reading something on the internet. I would prepare a flyer or two explaining the simple process of the work done at the facility and maybe addressing the concerns that have popped up in the past. Give contact emails that will give them a safer outlet to vent to in the future. By giving them things to read to educate themselves you have a means of deflecting a confrontation.
posted by JJ86 at 12:25 PM on August 7, 2013

They get sent to me,

Why? Not, why you, exactly, but why are they being sent past the front desk at all? I work in a very boring office that does unexciting work and no one gets past the front desk without an appointment unless they're somebody's spouse.

In order to answer the question: First, look to your office procedures for who gets sent to whom, and why. Second: For dealing with these folks - yes, put on your blandest-but-interested expression, make polite but non-committal noises ("That's interesting,") and set a (mental) time limit for when the encounter will end, even if they're in the middle of a sentence, and say something like "Thank you so much for stopping by. I have other appointments now, but I appreciate your input, and will pass your thoughts along."
posted by rtha at 12:25 PM on August 7, 2013 [12 favorites]

Yeah, this ain't a comic book shop - the "Lead Scientist" should not be talking with lunatics off the street. The janitor should not be dealing with random lunatics off the street. No-one gets an interview with any member of the staff without a written request for an appointment - if they show up without one, make them cool their heels in reception while the cops are called.
posted by Slap*Happy at 12:26 PM on August 7, 2013 [8 favorites]

(As someone who has been varying degrees of secretarial, I want to add that if you are expecting your secretary ( who is undoubtedly not trained to do this and probably makes a lot less money than you) to stop the people who you cannot stop, you need to rethink this. Everyone who is saying "this shouldn't get past reception" - please remember that the kind of secretary who works reception should not be expected to be a psychologist plus work security. At the very least, you need to beef up the secretary's role, training and probably pay.)
posted by Frowner at 12:28 PM on August 7, 2013 [38 favorites]

I hear you. Librarians are often (at least nominally) trained to de-escalate situations with problem patrons--public libraries in urban areas often function as social service agencies, however unwillingly, and librarians there often deal with undesirable behavior in patrons.

Reading something like this manual might be helpful in giving you a framework to start with--you could also track down the book referenced for additional (or more specific to mental health) strategies.

Good luck. This is hard.
posted by stellaluna at 12:28 PM on August 7, 2013 [7 favorites]

Mental illness runs the gamut, so there is no fool proof or standard way to deal.

This is a workplace safety issue. I'd very calmly and logically set forth in writing the many issues that have arisen to date from the lack of gatekeeping at your workplace, and your concerns about your personal safety as well as that of your colleagues from the current arrangement. I'd ask that the company please screen visitors via a security presence so that this risk is appropriately and professionally managed.

And next time they call you, I'd politely say that you don't feel comfortable doing this any more.
posted by bearwife at 12:29 PM on August 7, 2013 [3 favorites]

I'm sorry but what you have is not a personal communications problem, it's a processes problem. And the process under scrutiny here is your security system and it sucks.

Get a door buzzer and intercom and buzz people in. Refuse entry to anyone who isn't an employee, delivery person or guest. "I'm sorry, entry is by appointment only" is what the person in reception says.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:38 PM on August 7, 2013 [8 favorites]

Do any organizations in your area offer Mental Health First Aid courses? I took one just for the hell of it, and it had a whole section dedicated to how to calmly handle people with delusions. You (and your building's secretary/receptionist) might benefit a lot from a course like this--ideally your employer would give you time to attend one.
posted by ActionPopulated at 12:39 PM on August 7, 2013 [3 favorites]


I work at a very large pharmaceutical manufacturing operative in a very liberal city. IANAL, IANYL. I have worked with general counsel for our site and am moderately familiar with the legal ramifications of what you're describing.

We have had instances in the past where psychotic / paranoid individuals have chained themselves to our security gate and threatened to blow the place up.

We have extremely strict security in force on our site both directly as a result of these incidences, as well as to comply with DEA / TSA requirements for control of hazardous materials. We have a serious and highly formalized security process for dealing with any sort of trespass that is related to protest of our business. Dealing with and defusing these sorts of situations is brought up in our New Employee Orientation from Day 1 on site. It is emphatically not the job of any of our chemists, scientists, admin assistants, or the receptionist to handle or stall these folks until police arrive. We have infrastructure in place to safeguard our employees (crash gates, locking lobby, silent alarm system).

This is a job for a trained security professional. Everyone who is employed here at a point of entry (e.g. the receptionist and anyone who backs her up) is trained in appropriate response protocols.

If this is a not infrequent occurrence at your place of employment, then it is a known risk and your company (or university) can potentially be liable for any deaths / damages that occur on your property stemming from it.

Formerly I worked at a medical device company that had an animal testing facility on site. It was the frequent target of animal rights types. They had a similar, tightly controlled and highly formalized security process related to those incidents as well.
posted by lonefrontranger at 12:40 PM on August 7, 2013 [12 favorites]

I posted above about how to deal with random loons. I should say that I agree with most in that none of these folks should get to you in the first place.

Whomever the gatekeeper is should tell the person in the lobby that discussions are by appointment only.

Unless you are a massive person with muscles the size of cantaloupes, and these folks are being referred to you because of your ability to intimidate, I suggest a new process for this.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:40 PM on August 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

When I worked at the front desk of a office that was similarly innocuous yet with a name that attracted potentially unstable people, there was a panic button installed underneath the desk so that if shit got frightening the police could be called discreetly. If you have genuine security concerns your workplace may want to consider this.
posted by threeants at 12:41 PM on August 7, 2013 [4 favorites]

I would ask that you be trained (so far as such a thing is feasible); you might also recommend a security consultant who can talk about these sorts of things with your management, to give all of you a clearer idea of the actual threats and mitigation thereof.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 12:41 PM on August 7, 2013

As the Patients' Librarian at an inpatient state mental health institute, I personally work directly with a mentally ill population as part of my job. But my colleagues at public libraries are the ones I worry about, because THEIR patrons aren't necessarily medicated.

I know you are not a librarian and not working at a library, but it strikes me that when mentally ill people come to you with their ideas/concerns, they are approaching you for help in much the same way they would approach a librarian in a public or other library. They see you as an authority figure who has more power to "fix things" than they do, even if this is incorrect. And as "The Person That Can Help" you are going to need to bring a public service approach to dealing with these folks, much like library staff would need to, with the goal of satisfying the person who has come to you for help without a) disrupting your co-workers' ability to get their work done, b) putting anyone in danger, or c) giving the person the impression that you/your organization are hostile, dangerous, or irresponsible and thus creating an enemy or counteracting your marketing department's good work.

(Note that when I say "satisfying the person" I don't mean "giving them everything they are asking for". It's possible for a situation to be defused and a person in need of help to feel satisfied that you have given it "the old college try" at helping them out, without your having given them anything that they are asking for. But I digress...)

Anyway, articles/tips for dealing with the mentally ill in libraries:

From the American Association of Law Libraries: http://www.aallnet.org/main-menu/Publications/spectrum/Archives/Vol-14/No-2/pub-sp0911-psych.pdf

From the American Library Association's publication "Public Libraries", March/April 2009, p. 51 (an appendix to an article on the mentally ill in libraries; this page has "Suggestions for dealing with problematic mentally ill individuals": http://bit.ly/VJSWCL

General info on handling challenging patrons in the library, an archived webinar from Infopeople; part I has a section on self-care, meaning the ways we care for ourselves after a challenging episode with a patron:
Part 1: http://infopeople.org/training/what_do_i_know_part_1
Part 2: http://infopeople.org/training/what_do_i_know_part_2

Yup, I know this is all geared towards library staff, but again, I feel your role at your organization is putting you into situations that are similar to what a librarian dealing with the public might experience.

Good luck...this has got to be a stressful thing for you. And I bet you anything that "dealing with the insane" is nowhere on your job description...!
posted by gillyflower at 12:43 PM on August 7, 2013 [11 favorites]

Also, I am assuming that by "calling the cops unnoticed" you are referring to having a panic button under your desk...? When I worked in a busy public service area of a hospital, right next to the Patient Business Services desks where patients/families would get bad news about how much money they owed and sometimes blow their tops, all area desks had a panic button installed so that if anyone saw any situation escalating, they could press a button and Security would be called immediately and silently. Much, much easier and safer than trying to silently signal someone else to call Security.

If this is not something you have, ask for it. Now. Offer to fund it out of your department's budget if the Security department balks.
posted by gillyflower at 12:46 PM on August 7, 2013 [3 favorites]

My dad worked in a place that attracted a similar set of folks. The reception area was secured and the receptionist had a panic button installed. If I were the one on the receiving end of this sort of thing, I'd be lobbying hard either a) similar measures or b) a change in policy.
posted by jquinby at 12:50 PM on August 7, 2013 [4 favorites]

Nthing everyone above -- it's completely inappropriate for absolutely anyone aside from a well-trained, experienced, professional security detail to have to deal with visitors like the ones you've described, let alone on a regular basis. I'm so sorry that you have to worry about it.

Since this is having a negative effect on your research and contributing to a hostile work environment, do you have a supervisor or HR contact who might be concerned with these occurrences if you couched them in those terms? Who is sending these people to you, a single front desk person or multiple co-workers? Can you sit down and have a "No, Seriously" talk with any/everyone about how much their decisions are affecting you?
If they're still unwilling to stop letting scary, possibly threatening randoms stroll in from off the street and interfere with your research, drawing up a fake but intensely detailed Lead Scientist Inquiry Intake Form that needs to be filled out in blue ink, triplicate, etc. might buy you enough time to get the proper authorities out to your location while giving the scary people something innocuous to focus on.

With my fingers duly crossed that you will eventually have a professional barricade between you and the public at large, I'll still recommend AskMe favorite The Gift of Fear, to help you learn more about how to avoid and defuse difficult, frightening, and potentially dangerous situations. Everyone should read it, really.

To decompress, I'd recommend a bout of strenuous exercise, some gentle hatha yoga, and/or guided meditation. For sleep, valerian tea, a Dohm, and a siesta mask. Taking a self-defense class might help you feel more confident and aware. Good luck, hang in there!
posted by divined by radio at 1:01 PM on August 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

Phuniemee took the words out of my mouth. There needs to be a system with protocols in place to mitigate damage when working with people who are mentally ill or having a breakdown.

Additionally, I am really sad to see how many people in this thread are using highly derogatory language to refer to the people in question. People with mental illnesses are people with a mental illness, not whackadoodles, loons, crazies, etc, even if their behavior is scary and/or violent. Please do not internalize those euphemisms if you do wish to have more positive interactions with members of this population, because otherwise you are subconsciously affirming that these people are less than or not deserving of compassion or fair treatment.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 1:20 PM on August 7, 2013 [10 favorites]

Okay, a lot of questions. A few details that might help.

Folks who are comparing the layout to approaching a librarian's desk are pretty close to the mark: about 85% of the interactions I have are not by appointment, many with strangers, 99.9% of them are in my job description, 99.9999% of them are non-problematic. Locking the doors would put a serious crimp on these interactions, and still might end up with false negatives (frankly, the line between engineer and problem visitor can be somewhat thin. One of them was actually a student we knew.). The front desk person is good at redirecting some people to email, but as Frowner says she's also not paid or trained enough to get confrontational with these folks. I like the idea of a form to fill out.

The office is *very* small; I often come out of my office when I hear someone asking questions I can help with. I'm the lowest level person that can be called a scientist and one of my titles is outreach coordinator, so a bunch of slightly quirky stuff gets sent my way, anyhow. Having A Real Scientist (tm) listening to them does seem to diffuse some percentage of the energy.

We're on a university campus just a few blocks from the police station, and this has come up 4-5 times in the past 4 years. A security person just for one small office is not feasible, though we are talking about putting in a panic button. (The phone calls we've made have either happened after the person left, or by a staff person with a door that closes.) There are more general safety measures in our building such as panic phones.

My current approach has been bland redirection with mild clucks of sympathy, as if they were asking for a piece of equipment that turned out to actually be located across campus. Today I ended up spending a lot of time drawing on and explaining a map to another building, which seemed to give them something else to do, and a clear footpath that went right past the police station.
posted by tchemgrrl at 1:30 PM on August 7, 2013

Also, I apologize if I've used any incorrect/offensive terminology. Obviously I don't know anyone's diagnosis but it was clear that these folks were quite ill.
posted by tchemgrrl at 1:41 PM on August 7, 2013

Obviously I don't know anyone's diagnosis but it was clear that these folks were quite ill.

Other non-mental illness options that are very possible and that I ran into a lot: "possibly on drugs" and "drank a little too much of the [particular ideology] kool-aid"

I had a panic button at the museum that I never used. I only had to call the cops twice in my 3 years working there. A good phrase to use with the dispatcher is "there is a person here behaving in an erratic and unstable manner. S/he is shouting and I am afraid s/he may become violent."

You can leave presumptions of mental illness out of it entirely. Just the facts.
posted by phunniemee at 1:50 PM on August 7, 2013 [4 favorites]

Could you guys have a meeting with the campus police to discuss security recommendations? If it's the campus police agency I think you're describing, they do have some good people (and some oddballs) and have dealt with unstable and/or disruptive individuals in other departments. They'll also want to ensure that people who appear dangerous leave the campus if necessary and are the ones in a position to facilitate that (and refer them to local mental health or drug treatment services as appropriate).

Another potential resource may be someone from the student counseling service or the local mental health agency. They may be able to give you guys some basic training on de-escalation techniques. You might want to talk to the law school/law library folks too; I was always told they got a decent number of strangers, some of whom appeared unstable, looking for legal help for unusual issues.
posted by zachlipton at 1:54 PM on August 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Have the secretary deal with it? I don't think so. At the very least, you need to beef up the secretary's role, training and probably pay. Maybe if you're paying some burly 6'4" security guard to be secretary.

But if your organization has hired a woman as secretary and put her into what is known to be a possibly dangerous situation, you are asking for a major lawsuit if something happens.

What if you are seriously injured by one of these people? Do you think your company will compensate you for that? I wouldn't hold my breath. If they can't give you training (and counseling for stress and/or potential PTSD, what makes you think that they would completely reimburse you for any serious incident?
posted by BlueHorse at 1:54 PM on August 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

Can you tell them that you only accept written correspondence that is sent or submitted in a sealed envelope?
posted by quince at 2:01 PM on August 7, 2013

My current approach has been bland redirection with mild clucks of sympathy, as if they were asking for a piece of equipment that turned out to actually be located across campus. Today I ended up spending a lot of time drawing on and explaining a map to another building, which seemed to give them something else to do, and a clear footpath that went right past the police station.

That's actually a really good strategy.

You should also configure your office as much as possible so that visitors are not going to get between you and the door if things escalate physically. It sounds like you usually leave your door open, which is also good when it's feasible. But if you're set up the way 80% of offices are, with you behind a big desk and visitors sitting closest to the door, change that around so that you have a clearer path of escape if it's ever necessary. (This sounds like overkill, but it's the biggest piece of safety advice given to therapists, no matter what clientele they're dealing with.)
posted by jaguar at 2:14 PM on August 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

While I am sympathetic to your plight, OP, let me also state for the record that what BlueHorse says above is exactly correct. If your site has a history of these encounters, then your administration is exposing your employees to a known risk and a potentially very significant liability.

Admittedly my experience is not yours, but merely to further illustrate how other institutions may handle these situations: In addition to the pharma industry, I have also worked on 2 different campuses, once in the IT department at a medical clinic, and once temping as a data entry scrub at an academic research lab. Both were state universities.

I want to be clear that in neither of these sites were random students, outsiders or individuals ever allowed unsupervised access to the buildings the clinic / lab were housed in. External doors were locked and required employee keycard access. There was in both instances one main entry lobby, and patients or individuals seeking access to the labs were required to wait behind a locked security gate / door at the reception desk until an escort arrived.

So there is that.
posted by lonefrontranger at 2:15 PM on August 7, 2013

In addition to panic buttons, you might want to think about some sort of code word or name you could use -- like, telling the visitor you think "Dr. Gray" might be interested, and then you call [someone in the office who can call the police right now] asking if Dr. Gray is available, and then they know to call security. Or ask the receptionist to see if she can find Dr. Gray, and she can go into an empty office and call security.
posted by jaguar at 2:19 PM on August 7, 2013 [7 favorites]

Seconding Slap*Happy.
You have been incredibly fortunate that, so far, no one who has been allowed to stroll in has been carrying a hidden knife/gun/something sharp. You do not want to invite crazy into the heart of your building--that's like letting a bull in to discuss the accounting procedures at your china shop.

Hire a guard. Do not look for a way to prolong these people's stay at the possible physical cost to your co-workers.
posted by blueberry at 2:21 PM on August 7, 2013

And a BIG piece of advice I would give you:


Please, please, please give that up as a goal. Your goal in these sorts of situations is to keep you, and your co-workers, as safe as possible. That is usually going to mean getting rid of the threatening person as quickly as possible. It is not a failure if that happens, because you've kept yourself and your co-workers safe. You can always give a description of the threatening person to campus security and let them do THEIR job, which is to track the person down if necessary.
posted by jaguar at 2:22 PM on August 7, 2013 [7 favorites]

If the person has left, I'm not sure why you would even call the police, unless they made a specific threat against a specific person or entity that needs to be reported. Being paranoid and mentally unstable isn't a crime, and if they've left, then they aren't trespassing or causing you any trouble. The police aren't going to do anything about a paranoid or mentally unstable person who isn't breaking any law or acting in a threatening or aggressive manner. (Hopefully. Mentally ill people do end up getting shot by cops who also aren't trained to deal with symptoms of mental illness.)

If the person hasn't left and is acting in way that is makes you fear for the safety of you or your co-workers, then it is absolutely not your job to try to keep them there until the police come, and you shouldn't try. Even if you get some training or find something informative to read by asking this question, you will never have the training that you would need to safely attempt something like that. Having a potentially dangerous person leave your office is a good thing, not a bad thing.

I've worked in a professional office that has regular visits from people in crisis, many of whom have a serious mental illness. I don't think we've had to call the police in the nine years I've been here. We have a security protocol that includes many of the procedures other people have already described. We also don't refer to these folks as wackadoodles, loons, or "the crazy," and we don't assume they're dangerous.
posted by Mavri at 2:30 PM on August 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

The problem is that you're upset. And this is an upsetting thing to have happen. Feeling upset is a normal reaction.

But - what that person does when they enter your office and leave your office is not your responsibility. So there is no need to feel guilt about what happened when that person left your office today - you are not a mental health professional or a doctor.

They left your office and they did that. It has nothing to do with you.

The reasons why these people come into your office have nothing to do with you and you do not have to prevent them from happening or take responsibility for them happening or make reception take responsibility for them.

So decompress by meditating, taking a bath, going for a run - anything that will relax you. Remind yourself that it's not your fault or your responsibility.

My current approach has been bland redirection with mild clucks of sympathy, as if they were asking for a piece of equipment that turned out to actually be located across campus. Today I ended up spending a lot of time drawing on and explaining a map to another building, which seemed to give them something else to do, and a clear footpath that went right past the police station.

Distraction - it's your best strategy. So there's nothing wrong with what you did. Getting them to fill in a form could work too. Most of the time, people want to feel listened to. The pushback comes when they don't feel listened to. Find a way to listen to them that doesn't stress you out. (And after it happens, take a break, do something nice for yourself for five minutes, and make sure you take some time out for yourself that night - don't give yourself opportunities to mull over it).
posted by heyjude at 3:37 PM on August 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

I agree with everyone who says that this is a systems problem, and that you must change your procedures and perhaps your layout. I agree with everyone who says this is a crapshow waiting to happen, and that you should get campus security's input.

I also work for a major research university, one that attracts lots of tourists. Even the most harmless tourist poking into our offices is a use of time and energy on the part of our staff. A potential contact who shows up unannounced and expects hours of hospitality from high-level staff is excruciating. An unstable individual demanding to see a celebrity professor is a dangerous, but not uncommon situation. And an unaffiliated person hanging around in our "hallowed halls of academe" is awkward. Particularly when they steal things with our logo on them.

The main question to answer is, Are you a public building--that is, are you a public *service*? Is it a part of your organization's mission to have a publicly available presence for walk-ups? Is that something your organization will support with safety procedures? If it's not part of the mission, but a nice-to-have, what are they willing to *pay* in time, training, and procedures? What are you willing to pay in mental anguish?

You say you would "miss out" on these relevant work-interactions. Is it your job to be available in this particular way, for walk-ins? Or can your outreach portion be done through email, phone, or by hosting offsite events? And if it is your job, why aren't you at the front desk instead of the receptionist? Is this important enough to have her in that situation?

If this is your job, or really beneficial to your work, how can you change these systems so that interactions happen on your terms and with your permissions? Can you screen people via phone?

In my opinion, you might as well "miss out" on the dangerous people. Your receptionist certainly should.
posted by Hypatia at 4:38 PM on August 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

OP, I won't bother adding to the discussion in regard to whether or not protocols should be in place so you don't have to interact with those displaying unstable or psychotic behaviour; this has been addressed. Irrespective, this is your current dilemma, and I'd simply suggest you keep in mind people with mental illnesses become violent so rarely these instances are actually considered news worthy and, as such, shouldn't be assumed, "dangerous".

Additionally, I am really sad to see how many people in this thread are using highly derogatory language to refer to the people in question. People with mental illnesses are people with a mental illness, not whackadoodles, loons, crazies, etc, even if their behavior is scary and/or violent. Please do not internalize those euphemisms if you do wish to have more positive interactions with members of this population, because otherwise you are subconsciously affirming that these people are less than or not deserving of compassion or fair treatment

I agree. I find it extraordinary most reject derogatory racist or sexist terms but still feel it appropriate and acceptable to use such offensive and dismissive labels in association with the mentally ill.
posted by Nibiru at 5:00 PM on August 7, 2013 [4 favorites]

You can also seek out a workshop/course in conflict de-escalation or non-violent conflict resolution. My university offered such a workshop once, for example.
posted by eviemath at 5:12 PM on August 7, 2013

[Folks if you need to go to MetaTalk to talk about how people talk about the mentally ill, please feel free to do so but stop this line of discussion in this thread. It's off topic and derailing.]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 5:36 PM on August 7, 2013

I cannot recommend Mental Health First Aid highly enough. This is exactly what this course is designed to do--give people with no background in mental health enough knowledge to feel comfortable dealing with a person having a mental health crisis. As ActionPopulated mentioned, the course specifically covers helping people who seem to be delusional.
posted by epj at 5:54 PM on August 7, 2013

i agree with the others saying your office needs to develop some security protocol on this. can't you just fob people off with literature in the front office and not have them interact with anyone? since you're not really telling us the exact nature of the office it is hard to understand why paranoid people need to have access to you at all. definitely don't try to keep people there if they are unstable. sadly all you need is one unstable person to lose it for something bad to happen at your place of employment. i think you should talk to whoever runs the place and tell them you need security measures installed quickly. you also need to inform your employers of the toll it is already taking on you. this just isn't something you as an individual employee should be trying to troubleshoot.
posted by wildflower at 6:17 PM on August 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

I was reading this post after I saw your FB and thought, "Ha! T should really read this one!"


Here at Our Alma Mater, we have a structured threat assessment setup, from email lists between administrators/police/etc. to a specific team (I think). I believe most larger universities have this in place, and I think this is partly because there are regulations requiring it. The scope of their work usually includes the more serious issues (documented threats and past history), but could range from a community member who has made specific threats against a specific person to students who are exhibiting troubling behavior indicating that they might hurt themselves or others.

So get in touch with your campus PD/security or something, and your Dean of Students office might have some connection to that sort of team as well. They can get you in touch with people who can point you toward appropriate training that respects your own needs and those of the people you might encounter.
posted by Madamina at 7:57 PM on August 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

I worked in a Financial Aid office for a very large, elite, university. We were 2 blocks from the building for mental health patients who were in day programs (came to the program during the day, went home at night. Usually they lived with family or in a group home). These patients were ill but not violent and not a violence risk.

About once a semester, one of the patients would slip their leash and come to apply for financial aid. We had someone trained in dealing with them - we were a financial aid office, so we couldn't just close our doors to incomers. Usually, the front desk would call the trained person, and they'd meet the patient on the benches outside the office. Meanwhile, the front desk would call the mental health facility to come get the patient. The trained person would sit with the patient in the meantime, and just talk. "So what do you hope to study at University?" "Interesting, so tin foil doesn't prevent the aliens from contacting - it amplifies those communications?" "Really. So you've drawn plans for a samoflange." etc. Easy, innocuous conversations - it reminded me a bit of how a therapist talks - "mmm hmm, interesting. So what next?" It usually only took 5-10 minutes for the hospital staff to get there.

Good luck, it's always a bit nerve wracking.
posted by RogueTech at 8:51 PM on August 7, 2013

If any crazy is detected by the front desk, don't let them be sent to you. Front desk person should call you and ask you to come to the front desk. The further they get into the office, the harder to get them out. All visitors should be announced - Front Desk on phone to you: tchemgrrl, Wilma Flintstone is here regarding stuff. A code, like *regarding an urgent personal matter*, could alert you to possible crazy. You and the Front Desk should have a panic button that calls police or a security company, who will send someone to the office.

Life is already difficult, but you and the front desk staffer should not have to worry about dealing with really mentally ill people at work, or be afraid for your personal safety.
posted by theora55 at 10:54 PM on August 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think that the way you've been dealing with this is pretty much the only way to go. Cluck and tsk but explain facts whenever possible when given an actual datapoint, divert to actual sources of information, murmur sympathetically but provide links for them to explore and just keep pushing them in a direction which leads to actual research whilst also not dismissing them as completely ignorant loonbags. Some people just need to be pointed in the right direction.

If they become aggressive, that's a whole different kettle of fish. Make sure you have a number on hand which will bring someone to your office immediately to help you.
posted by h00py at 6:22 AM on August 8, 2013

Thanks, all.

If anyone is looking for a quick wrap-up later on, these are some actions which we had already undertaken and which were effective:
-Had an in-house training with campus police on dealing with workplace disturbances
-Created a general "in case of emergency" plan complete with some safety words ("Could you clear my schedule" when no one in this office does that sort of thing, "Could you contact Prof. [obviously fakename]")
-Call the campus PD as soon as possible, as per their request (we've gotten better about this)
-Had a short debrief after each one where we talk about anything that could be improved if this happens again.

Things we have done today or will be doing soon based on the advice here:
-Contact campus police again for a specific workplace audit--there may be other protocols/layouts that would improve safety without making it difficult for the guy that just needs help interpreting her data.
-Look into getting a panic button (audit should help with figuring out the location)
-Talk to student health services about training/materials
-Making a very general paper form to fill out because the correct contact person "is on vacation this week."
-I'll be reading through the Mental Health First Aid and contacting a local instructor.
posted by tchemgrrl at 11:41 AM on August 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Every hospital has a psych de-escalation procedure in the Emergency Dept and at least one person on every shift who knows how to make it work. If I were in your shoes, I'd call one or two local hospitals and see if you can set up a time for a meeting with one of these experts so they can give you some tips. Having been in similar situations (two years managing an apartment building that catered to folks who were transitioning from inpatient psych care to independent living, 11 years working in nursing homes that had psychiatric patients as well as developmentally disabled, physically disabled and geriatric, etc) I can definitely say that approaching the problem from a standpoint of "security" - with one-on-one, who's the toughest, force, threats, etc - is a setup for disaster with a person who's truly suffering from a psychotic episode. There are other ways of talking the person down and getting his cooperation almost always, and those who work with psych patients daily can give you a lot of tips. Some of the comments above illustrate that point - classes, workshops, talking with an expert in mental illness (as opposed to police/security work) - will help you immeasurably, and once you feel more adept at de-escalating a crisis, you'll rest easier yourself, as will everyone else in your office.
posted by aryma at 11:03 PM on August 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

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