What do I say to my friend?
September 15, 2019 12:17 AM   Subscribe

I just had a very strange and worrying conversation with a friend. I am not sure how to handle it.

Please believe that what follows is extremely out of character for my friend, who is someone I know quite well, both in terms of their avowed beliefs and in terms of their lived practice.

A friend just told me that they worry about mass killings of white people, particularly white men, because white men are so widely hated on the internet. My friend is worried that this will generate mass violence, and that my friend would like to live alone in the woods out of fear of this (among other reasons). My friend is referring specifically to the kind of left internet where we both hang out. My friend sees the left internet as identifying white people as a group with the sole source of all oppression and therefore fears some kind of mass violence in response to society getting worse and worse.

I want to stress that this is not in character for my friend, so while I'm worried about it because it's a racist idea I'm also worried about my friend, who has a history of some pretty extreme and unusual trauma and some mental health struggles and is under a huge amount of pressure right now. The "I need to go to the woods to stay safe" part is the big driver here.

I admit that I fumbled this conversation in the moment, pretty much saying, "that is not going to happen" and "if white people are ever targeted it will be because white people start something" and changed the subject.

I obviously need to talk to my friend about this. What do you advise? I do understand that if we have a conversation where my friend is like, "I am committed to the racist idea that white people are the real victims here" then our friendship is over.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
It's unfortunate that this delusion is about a very serious and hateful topic like racism, and I understand that you need to uphold a righteous anti-racist stance and not tolerate such extreme racist rhetoric. However, this is out of character for this friend, and there is the fact of their history of trauma and mental health problems. This sounds like a crisis. Sudden changes of character and espousing extreme delusional beliefs could indicate your friend is having an episode of psychosis, or mania; a mental breakdown of some kind. You're right that the "I need to go live in the woods right now due to my perception of imminent serious threat" thing is a big red flag.

If you can, I would frame this conversation not as "Omg I can't believe you believe this horribly racist idea, how could you, you're cancelled as my friend", but instead try to probe their current situation, whether they are at risk to themselves, and try to get them to access support from family and/or professionals. Translate the delusion into being along the lines that they think martians are going to come and kill them, if it helps.

Once this friend recovers from this episode, and are healthy and back to their regular personality, if they are still spouting off about this conspiracy against white people, that will be the time to address the content of their beliefs. But at the moment I would approach this as instance of ill-health. They may well be deeply ashamed of their actions once this episode has passed.
posted by Balthamos at 1:30 AM on September 15, 2019 [26 favorites]

Having had friends and family members with mental illness, I can say that a desire to escape to the woods is a very common theme. One friend's sister, who had bipolar disorder, would frequently disappear, when she had gone off her meds, and live in the woods for a few days, up to a week. Obviously this was concerning, and it was during warmer months, but she felt the need to escape, and going into the woods was her way of coping with the pain.

If your friend is so stressed out that they are having these uncharacteristic thoughts, you can suggest they seek a therapist, to discuss their stress issues. Hopefully a qualified professional could evaluate them and get them some help.

You could also call the hotline at NAMI and seek support and advice.

I'd say, "Friend, you seem really stressed lately. Have you thought about seeking help from a therapist or doctor?"

It is very easy for mentally ill people to pick one thing to focus on as the root cause of their troubles. You obviously have to care for your own self first, but if they have family members you feel comfortable discussing this with (parents, spouse, partner, etc.), and can ask if they have seen signs, maybe you can get some more info (such as "yes, this has happened before and we are trying to get Friend to seek help").

If your friend refuses help, and isn't a danger to themselves or others, it can be difficult to get them to go to a psychiatrist and/or a therapist for evaluation. Often, a crisis must occur before they will seek help (or be forced to seek help). All you can do is make the suggestion.

I would find it difficult to continue a friendship if the person kept talking about racist theories. So what you do is up to you, like I said, take care of yourself first. Just trying to provide some context, based on what I've experienced. Have also had family members who latch onto conspiracy theories, and get very upset if other people don't agree with their views, so instead of focusing on that and trying to argue about it, it might be better to ask how they would make a plan to go live in the woods, what they'd do for a job, etc. Guessing that life's stresses have driven many people to want to escape to the woods (I live the woods myself, but it's not all it's cracked up to be, it can be very isolating, having a social life and a support network is crucial, no matter where one lives). But I am living here because I enjoy nature, and lucked out on a rental a few years ago.

Best of luck to you and your friend. I hope they get the help they need.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 1:58 AM on September 15, 2019 [9 favorites]

Your friend is having a mental health crisis, so focus entirely on that and not at all on the specifics of what they are saying. The suggested approach of "it's seems like you are dealing with a ton of stress and I really feel for you; do you have a therapist you can talk to for support? Do you maybe need help wading through insurance to find one?" is the only way to go here.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:36 AM on September 15, 2019 [27 favorites]

Any chance this friend could have undiagnosed or untreated bipolar disease? This sort of grandiose delusion and paranoia sounds like an extreme mania to me.
posted by spitbull at 5:10 AM on September 15, 2019 [5 favorites]

If killing of white people were a thing, there would be examples of it. There aren't. There is no tend towards violence against entitled or otherwise whites in the US. I suspect your friend is listening to the wrong news channels, reading the wrong sites, where white supremacists groom uneasy white men to become crazy pants Marchers.

There has been anti-white violence in So. Africa, a very different scenario, and the Blacks are still more endangered. Read The Myth of White Genocide and Google anti-white violence So. Africa. We are nowhere near anything like that.

The white supremacists give bored, uninspired white guys a sense of mission and solidarity against an imagined enemy. Help your friend find a better mission and solidarity with decent humans. Habitat for Humanity, Outward Bound, volunteering at an animal shelter, teaching English to immigrants gives people a chance to hear amazing stories, there are many opportunities.
posted by theora55 at 6:19 AM on September 15, 2019 [2 favorites]

It's an extremely irrational belief, so my first thought was to suggest breaking it down with her using something like David Burns' CBT triple column technique. But I'm not sure it's going to be effective if she can't recognize that the thoughts are irrational enough to interrogate them. I would indeed be calling NAMI and/or suggesting she get some help for hte stress and anxiety that are dominating her thoughts.

I do think our climate is interacting very negatively with people who are going through some mental/emotional vulnerabilities. She's not alone in feeling like the solution is some extreme reaction to conditions, though the specifics look different for everyone. So it's normal enough to be worried and concerned. But she's taking that in the direction of some cognitive errors.
posted by Miko at 6:43 AM on September 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

CBT can be useful but I would be very careful about using it with someone who has not explicitly agreed to thought-restructuring. I've been on both sides of that in friendships and it seems to cause problems. I slipped into doing this recently with a friend who was saying things I couldn't tacitly agree with (likely as part of a mental health thing) and they just stopped talking to me.

I empathize with the situation of a friend saying things that are wildly untrue and being faced with the option of seeming tacit agreement if you don't say anything or "arguing" with someone who is experiencing some kind of mental health thing. I think DarlingBri's suggested approach is wise.
posted by needs more cowbell at 7:30 AM on September 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

Some helpful comments above concerning a probable mental health crisis of your friend.

I also want to query about how old this friend is. Some fearful paranoid thinking like this was one of the first signs (in retrospect) that appeared of a loved one's beginning dementia. Early onset Alzheimer's can start even in the forties.
posted by gudrun at 7:43 AM on September 15, 2019 [5 favorites]

I found this past comment from jessamyn in a similar AskMe, and the linked resources from NAMI, including the TedX video "I’m Not Sick, I Don’t Need Help!" by Dr. Xavier Amador, to offer an illuminating perspective on these types of episodes.
posted by katra at 8:22 AM on September 15, 2019 [5 favorites]

I think you're right to be worried. Arguing with a person suffering from any form of delusion or psychosis doesn't work. Deflect the comments neutrally and gently encourage the person to seek care, independent of the comments. This is a tough situation and I hope your friend gets help.
posted by praemunire at 10:45 AM on September 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

Having had friends and family members with mental illness, I can say that a desire to escape to the woods is a very common theme. One friend's sister, who had bipolar disorder, would frequently disappear, when she had gone off her meds, and live in the woods for a few days, up to a week.

Yep, if you're used to interacting with people with mental health-related delusions, this is usually somewhat of a normal thing to say/do. Which doesn't mean that it's not alarming and somewhat scary. If this was in character for your friend (i.e. getting radicalized over time) I'd have different advice but for now I think it's worth acting as if it's likely a mental health crisis and one that your friend is not aware that they are having.

It is generally not a good idea to argue with people's delusions, but it's a fine line to walk. And, to be clear, NAMI is an option for you if you want it. Sometimes going to a support group where everyone there is talking about their loved ones' delusions can give you a better idea about what they are and how they work and how to work with them.
posted by jessamyn at 2:41 PM on September 15, 2019 [4 favorites]

Does this person have access to a gun? If so, can you covertly revoke their access? This kind of rhetoric sounds like something a mass shooter would use as justification for violence. Agreed that this kind of aggressive paranoia sounds like psychosis.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 3:22 PM on September 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

Actually I’m back to say that in addition to my above suggestion that this might be mania, I have personally observed someone go through a very similar break where the delusion took a similar form. It was, it turned out, the emergence of schizophrenia.

Your friend needs a mental health professional.
posted by spitbull at 6:44 PM on September 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

Has your friend been having headaches or balance issues or dizzyness and the like too? Another medical explanation that can result in strange beliefs, paranoia and conspiracy thinking: brain tumors.
posted by carmicha at 5:20 AM on September 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

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