my boss is mentally ill

A reader writes:

I work for a collection agency that is a sole proprietorship. Over the past several months, the owner’s behavior has become increasingly odd and paranoid. He fired the accounting staff just before Christmas, saying that they were plotting against him. The owner’s target is now the IT director, who he says has installed tracking programs on his home and work computers, is spying on him and his family, deletes his documents while he’s working on them (even when he’s using WiFi in India), and sends him threatening messages that pop up on his screen. He even has his wife feeding into his delusions: while he was in India, he had his wife unplug all their home computers because they’re “not safe” and told her to buy a new one and go somewhere “safe” to do payroll. It’s gotten so bad that the few people who are left are looking for jobs or have already found them (my last day is coming up).

This morning, our email wasn’t working. I was able to get into our commercial debt database but not the consumer debt database. Our overseas call center couldn’t access either one. When our IT director started checking around, he found out that the owner stopped in the office yesterday (Sunday), and he removed one former employee’s computer and several of the servers and took them home. When our attorney contacted him, he said that Mr. IT has infected all of our servers and computers as well and has launched a conspiracy against him. When she asked him to send whatever proof he has, he sent several pages of completely innocuous DOS code over our fax machine.

Without those servers, we can’t do any work. When the attorney asked about getting them back in the office, he said he wouldn’t bring them because he couldn’t trust Mr. IT to hook them back up and he doesn’t know how to do it. We don’t know whether we should even show up tomorrow, or the next day, or what! Should we keep showing up and sitting there doing nothing? Should we call someone to report what’s going on so they can get him some help? I feel so bad for his wife and little girls, but I’m honestly at a loss as to what to do.

Oh, this is terrible. I’m sorry you’re facing it.

I’d continue showing up through your last day as long as you’re (a) getting paid and (b) feel safe there. If you feel at all unsafe though, move up your last day to right now.

And while I don’t normally advocate contacting people’s spouses, this might be a situation where it would be warranted. It’s hard to think that his wife isn’t aware of what’s going on with her husband, but she might not realize the ways that it’s playing out at work. You could explain that you’re concerned about his health and didn’t feel right not alerting someone who’s better positioned to evaluate the situation and help him than you are.

Good luck.

{ 217 comments… read them below }

  1. thenoiseinspace*

    I’m so sorry for your boss. Going through this kind of mental illness can be very traumatic, and being a constant sate of such high stress is very damaging. I wish you all the best in getting through this, and I hope he gets the help he needs.

  2. Adam*

    Good Lord, what happened to this guy? He’s essentially either eliminated or scared all his employees away to the point where there’s no organization left to run. I’ve dealt with managers and directors I’ve had little faith in, but I’d have no idea how to explain the difficulties the office is having to outside clients without impugning the owner. How would you even begin to do that?

    Congratulations that you have a new job you can escape to. Hopefully the rest of your colleagues are able to abandon this sinking ship post haste.

  3. Totally Normal Person*

    OP, good that your last day is soon. I have been in a similar situation that had gotten quite extreme, though not quite as extreme as yours.

    I agree with AAM that you may need to move up your last day just for your own personal safety. However, I strongly disagree about contacting this man’s wife. Do not do this under any circumstances. I have dealt with a few different individuals like this in both my professional and personal life and the one thing they have in common is that their behavior is highly unpredictable (as you probably realize).

    If you do contact this man’s wife, you really have no idea what he will do. He may attempt to sue you for libel/slander. He may do something worse.

    Get the heck out of there and back away slowly. Do not put your own safety at risk. Someone that is this delusional is capable of just about anything. Please do not make the mistake of thinking that you are safe in this environment because you believe the odds of him doing something are extremely remote. You won’t know what those odds are until it actually happens. And then, all of the sudden, the odds are 100%.

    Your boss’s mental health is not your concern. It is the concern of his family and his doctors (hopefully he has one).

    1. Satia*

      I agree with Totally Normal Person. Contacting the wife is risky, at best. If you feel compelled to do so, wait until your last day and only if you know that your boss does not know where you will be working. You do not want this man contacting your new employer or, worse still, showing up at your new job and making a scene.

      Unfortunately, whatever else you do, he would still know where you live. Anyone who has had personal experience with a paranoid person knows how dangerous they can become. Anything from stalking to direct threats to your person can happen if he thinks you are attacking him.

      You could, if you absolutely feel compelled to inform his wife, write her an anonymous letter or email but that is likely to feed into his paranoia and, if she is buying into it, which it sounds like she is, then this well-meaning letter will only serve as proof that his neuroses are legitimate.

      1. Sophia*

        I agree re: not contacting his wife. I think it would feed into his paranoia, and include his wife into any conspiracy he feels is against him.

          1. Sophia*

            Yes, but for some reason my mind went to him taking it out even more on his wife. Hopefully, that won’t be the case.

      2. Grace*

        Is some of this taking place in the U.S.? If “yes”, call the police and discuss it with them. The mentally ill boss can be arrested and taken in for mental health care for being a danger to himself and others.

        1. Rayner*

          The police have to follow stringent procedures about whether or not they can commit somebody involuntarily (should. Whether or not they follow them is another matter). The person must be causing or at risk of causing harm to themselves or other people, and unless the OP has proof of this – not just “he’s paranoid and weird”, it’s likely there’s not a lot they can do.

          1. Bea W*

            Laws and treatment of the mentally ill vary widely from state to state. Being really painfully aware of what calling police can set in motion for someone, I would only advise doing this in the most extreme circumstances such as someone threatening suicide or physical harm to himself or others and the police are needed to keep people safe from harm. In some places a person being detained in these circumstances faces poor treatment, total loss of rights, and imprisonment in a facility that is potentially worse than being held in jail and without the legal protections someone being arrested as a criminal has.

            1. Rayner*

              Very true.

              Barring the OP’s update below, I would be very hesitant to go to that level straight away.

              I know Grace has previous advocated (on the hysterical pregnancy post) much much tougher responses when dealing with mental health people but I feel like calling the police is both unfair and potentially risky, unless the OP feels that she, others, or the person is in danger.

            2. Ornery PR*

              I agree with you, Bea W. I’ve heard way too many stories lately about the cops being called on a mentally deranged person and it ending tragically and sometimes fatally. OP, i’m completely in favor of you doing what you need to do to back out safely and quietly and not get too involved. Seems like the best thing to do for you, and also potentially him and his family.

            3. mysticjeanie*

              If the company has a lawyer, why doesn’t a lawyer do some digging and contact a buddy in mental health law? This is absurb. The lawyer needs to know ALL the facts! It’s affecting the company!
              *had a diagnosed bi-polar employee as a supervisor

          1. darqmommy*

            as someone who has had plenty of experience with folks who are recovering from mental illness, I want to point out that unless he has either
            A) committed a crime
            B) made an actual threat of harm to himself or someone else
            C) failed to meet the basic needs of his minor children (and that is a very low standard)
            there is really nothing that law enforcement, the magistrate, or DSS can or will do about him. In the U.S., being mentally ill and making terrible decisions is a right. I actually support that right. I support his right to take a complete nosedive, because the “flip side” of that coin is being institutionalized or jailed for making peer decisions that others don’t agree with.
            It’s up to his family to recognize that he is irrational, and to reach out for help, or to let him continue on this path by himself.
            Back away slowly, and be glad he is not you boss anymore.

        2. aebhel*

          Yeah, don’t do this. It’s very unlikely that there are grounds for getting him involuntarily committed, at least based on what I’ve read here, and beyond that, unless you have some actual reason to think he’s a threat, that’s really kind of a shitty thing to do to someone.

        3. Melissa*

          When mentally ill people are involuntarily committed, they aren’t arrested unless they’ve done something illegal. Being taken in forcibly is different from being arrested.

    2. Bea W*

      I disagree about calling the wife as well unless the OP is super trusted close friends with her. I’d just quietly finish out my time, flying below the radar. Inserting oneself right into the middle of this mess could make things messier. From the OPs letter it sounds like the wife is experiencing the same type of behavior at home. It won’t be news to her, and if the owner finds out it will feed into his paranoia. Employees calling his wife to tell her he’s mentally unbalanced will be proof to him that he’s justified in being paranoid. It’s kinda of crappy, but it’s not in your control. Move up your last day if you are too uncomfortable coming in. Otherwise, act like it’s business as usual until you no longer work there.

    3. Kiwi*

      I agree – however I would go further.
      Do not contact him. Do not contact his wife.
      Doing so will compromise your own safety.
      Read The Gift of Fear? Your Spidey-Senses are going off for a reason.

      I wouldn’t “move up my leaving date”, I would take – unpaid, if necessary – sick days and stop showing up. Somehow, “sick days” seems less confrontational (to the crazy mind) than suddenly and suspiciously (to the crazy mind) abandoning (to the crazy mind) the boss. Given the stress involved, doubtless you can get a doctor’s sick note for the unscheduled time-off.

      You can’t always save the world, but you can save yourself.

      1. Carpe Librarium*

        “You can’t always save the world, but you can save yourself.”

        This needs to be stitched onto pillows and handed out to anyone who has experienced, or is experiencing, any form of abuse.

        1. Jazzy Red*


          OP, get out of there today. Don’t call the wife, don’t call the police, don’t call local mental health officials, just get out of there and count your blessings.

          You don’t need to clean up this mess. It’s not yours.

      2. darqmommy*

        The Gift of Fear!!
        Number one book to purchase for a new grad!
        That book is useful in so many situations. Use your Spidey-sense!

      1. Jessa*

        This because he’s taken property belonging to the company. Depending on how the company is constituted this could be criminal. The lawyer is the best one to deal with this.

        1. rando*

          I believe the OP said this was a sole proprietorship so it wouldn’t be stealing. The company is not legally separate from the owner. He basically took his own servers home.

      2. mysticjeanie*

        Bingo! What I was thinking. The man is ruining the company. It’s the lawyer’s job now! Not yours!

  4. Katie the Fed*

    Oh my god, how sad/scary.

    I have no advice at all. Just keep yourself safe, and make sure you have contact information for other people who could give you a reference there.

  5. This is me*

    I have to add to this that if the wife is feeding his impulses, contacting her may only get you on the bosses radar in a negative way. Best of luck.

    1. Traveler*

      Yes, but this situation seems to be escalating. Who knows what this boss will do next. Telling someone who is in a position to actually do something (which may involve having him admitted) is a good idea for not only the employees but for the wife and children. If the business collapses or the employer goes further with this, everyone will be pointing fingers saying why didn’t someone say something??

    2. iseeshiny*

      Cosigned. Even (maybe especially) if the wife believes you and attempts to get outside help, if your name comes up at all it’s entirely possible he’ll start to fixate on you as much as the IT guy.

        1. iseeshiny*

          I suppose you’re right that they could, but I don’t know about “should.”

          1. Traveler*

            the should was – if they choose to do it, they should absolutely do it anonymously, sorry. I do encourage them reporting it as often times while the spouse has an inkling – they have zero idea of the full scope, and the spouse would be the only other person besides the individual that could get them help without a violent offense first.

          2. Grace*

            It is best in the situation to call the police, if this situation is occurring in the U.S., and to discuss it with them. The boss can be arrested and taken in for mental health care (which he needs) for being a danger to himself and others.

            1. Rayner*

              The police are not always the best solution in situations like this, and they may very well turn around and say it’s up to the family to commit, or the boss to go in for voluntary commitment.

              Unless the boss is violent or at risk of causing actual harm to himself or others (e.g. he has purchased weapons and made threats to use them), they can’t just shove him in a mental institution. Period. People have rights, and the police are incredibly busy. If they don’t have a credible threat of violence, they may not be able to intervene.

              1. Artemesia*

                The way it works in the US is like our gun laws — you have to kill some hapless bystander or co-worker before they can decide you can’t carry guns or that you might need mental health care. This guy not only probably can’t be committed, he probably can’t be prevented from carrying firearms and if he does kill the OP or others, he will probably get off any serious consequences with a mental health defense.

                The system guarantees death of innocents because nothing can be done until it is literally too late.

                1. Chinook*

                  Hearing how many of you are advocating against calling the police, I am releived that the Canadian system is different. The police would much rather know about this person before they escalate tp violence because they more than likely will. DH has been on many mental health calls and sat in the ER with them while they waited to be assessed by a psychiatrist. Because they are often called before the violence occurs, they then know what they are dealing with when they come across this individual on a very bad day. The good cops know that mental illness is not criminal behaviour but that it can cause harm. They also know that, when they show up, they are feeding the paranoid delusion because now someone really is out to get the individual. But, if the person is going to escalate when confronted, better to do so amongst trained professionals rather than clueless bystanders.

                2. aebhel*

                  Ok, but since the alternative here is locking up anybody who starts acting weird (and I am really disturbed how many people seem to be advocating that), I’ll stick with the current system, thanks.

              2. Muriel Heslop*

                I have had frequent contact with our city’s Mental Health Officers and they are some of the most compassionate and thoughtful people I’ve worked with. Most of those I had contact with would rather help before something tragic happens. Of course, I was dealing with them in situations where there was an exhibited potential for violence or violence already occurred.

                Or my city may have exceptionally helpful MHOs.

                1. Rayner*

                  In the UK, there’s a hell of a lot of pressure on police departments, and while they will offer help and advice, they just can’t bundle you up in the back of a van and order you to a doctor who could order you into a secure unit unless they have very good reasoning. With the amount of strain mental health units are under, it’s… not always an assured outcome.

                  In a situation like this, they’d probably talk to the family who could circumvent that, and take them to the doctor themselves, or if the guy is self aware enough, they could go for the self commitment route.

                  The people are nice, themselves, and I’m sure they want to absolutely help. But the law is tight, and they can’t do it all. So it’s a good idea to talk to the police if the OP suspects violence, but if they don’t, they shouldn’t.

  6. Anon for this*

    What do you do when the mentally ill person is a relative, whose spouse won’t (or can’t) do anything about it, like get the person to see a doctor or therapist? Especially when the person has not done anything violent – yet – but shows so many frightening signs of going off the deep end one day?

    1. Lizabeth*

      Sadly, nothing can be done until they do something that has consequences. All you can do is to try to keep everybody out of range when it happens.

      1. neverjaunty*

        This is not true. You can’t make the person see a therapist, but you can take steps to protect yourself, some of which may lead to the mentally ill person getting help. Also, laws and situations dealing with the mentally ill vary greatly by state and country; a blanket ‘sorry, just wait until bad stuff happens’ is not accurate.

        Anon for this, I would strongly recommend that you call a domestic violence hotline (or, if applicable, RAINN) and NAMI to ask for resources for your friend, if you can do so safely. They may be able to point you, and by extension the spouse, in the right direction, at a minimum to make plans if the situation escalates.

    2. Clever Name*

      I have no idea. I have a friend who is married to a schizophrenic, and I fear for her and her child’s lives. My mother’s cousin was shot and killed by his own son who is schizophrenic and was having a delusional episode.

      1. Anon for this*

        I am so sorry to hear that. That is precisely what worries me, too.

        This relative has a firearms fetish (along with a large collection of legally-obtained and licensed firearms), a health-related military discharge (tried to commit suicide, but it was unfortunately written off as a vague “medical disability” on the paperwork), and a major problem with authority figures (real and perceived).

        1. sunny-dee*

          Anon, the only thing they can do is try for an involuntary commitment or to get one of the VA doctors to do some sort of psychological diagnosis because of his suicide attempt. *Diagnosed* mental illness is an automatic blocker for firearms licenses — but if the guy never gets treatment and no one ever forces it (the commitment), there’s no record, and he’ll pass background checks.

          Most paranoid people have a lot of violence-related fetishes. I had a schizophrenic stalker once, and he told me about all the guns he had (which I don’t think was true), and he threatened to decapitate my boss. Honestly, you can’t trust crazy. If your relative has a spouse, lean on the wife to get rid of the guns and knives. It could be a blow-up, though, and she is probably trying to avoid setting him off.

        2. Turanga Leela*

          Is there any way to convince the spouse to get the guns out of the house, or is the spouse a gun fanatic too? This guy is at risk of suicide, based on the attempt, and having guns around makes that much more likely.

          Could you reach out to someone at the VA or to veterans’ support organizations to contact your relative? A veteran who is reluctant to seek mental health care might be willing to speak with other veterans, and some of those groups are great.

          1. Turanga Leela*

            Just realized that probably sounded callous. I’m sorry about your relative, Anon. I have a relative who is in a similar situation and has actually been committed several times, but each time she gets out she stops taking her medication and relapses. We have no idea what to do.

            1. Anon for this*

              Thank you. No, you did not sound callous. And to answer your question: yes, the spouse is also a gun fanatic who seems to have the attitude that not condoning the situation would be disloyal. I mean, it is commendable to be loyal to one’s spouse, but at some point you love them by saying no or by protecting them from themselves, not by just agreeing with everything, right?

              I should share that I grew up in a house with firearms present and am not at all uncomfortable with guns in and of themselves. However, this relative’s history and ongoing current behavior combined with possession of multiple firearms are worrisome.

              1. mysticjeanie*

                This is like a recovering alcoholic episode. You do NOT drink in front of someone who had abuse with alcohol! The spouse in enabling the guns and the issue!

        3. Jazzy Red*

          Stay far, far away from this person. Keep your own family away from this person as well. All you can do is try to protect you and yours by staying under his radar as much as possible. If this guy ever comes to your home with firearms, call the police immediately and hide your family in the safest spot you have in your home. Realize that you will NOT be able to reason with him, so protecting your family should be your first priority.

      2. Glor*

        Clever Name, I am unsure if you’re saying that you fear for your friend and her kid because the husband is schizophrenic, or because the husband is schizophrenic AND violent. If it’s the first, please… reconsider how that phrasing comes across. Not all people with schizophrenia are violent or will harm someone. Many people with mental illnesses never hurt anyone [hi!] and to just assume that there will be harm because of an MI is… kind of dangerous and hurtful.

        1. TL*

          I think it’s fair to be worried about someone with a severe, untreated mental illness. (Treatment here being anything from sticking to a schedule and getting plenty of sunshine to medications and talk therapy every day.)

          1. A Non*

            Mental illness is much more likely to make someone a crime victim than a perpetrator. ( Drug use is more closely tied to violence than mental illness. ( I’d really appreciate commenters in this forum not making blanket assumptions that people with mental illnesses are dangerous. We don’t encourage people to flee coworkers who apparently have drug problems for their own safety, let’s please not advise that for mental illness either.

            That said, applying statistics to specific cases is a mistake. If the OP feels like they’re in an unsafe situation, listen to that instinct and get out of there.

            1. TL*

              I don’t think that people with mental illnesses are dangerous I was aware of those statistics before – , nor do I see anyone really making that assumption (or I hope they aren’t. I haven’t read all the comments yet.)
              But when someone is exhibiting erratic, unpredictable behavior, especially if it’s steadily worsening, and there are no efforts to change that, I think people are right to be worried. “Severe, untreated” were the key words there. Which, thankfully, does not describe most mental illnesses.
              And, if someone was coming in high and extraordinarily paranoid or drunk and violent all the time, I would certainly advise someone to flee for their own safety.

            2. littlemoose*

              +1. Thanks for helping dispel this myth. I know everyone here is compassionate and trying to help, and the particulars of this specific situation may defy the statistics. But generally, most schizophrenics and other mentally ill people are NOT violent, and are far more likely to be victimized.

            3. Bea W*

              Thank you for this. Reading from my phone and don’t easily have access to the resources I keep on my computer.

            4. Chinook*

              Add me to the voice of those who want to say that mental illness doesn’t equal violent. Only 5% of schizophrenics turn violent (unfortunately, there is no way of knowing which 5%) and most mental illnesses are not anything like schizophrenia. It is ideas like that that limit the amount of people I am willing to admit my illness (for which I am being treated).

            5. Editor*

              This “Ask Me Anything” is with a researcher who has schizophrenia:


              That said, a person with a history of violence as part of their illness is someone who’s different than a person with no pattern of violence. The problems getting decent treatment for people suffering from mental illness are disheartening — there doesn’t seem to be enough care or enough political will to fund decent care.

            6. Melissa*

              I’m glad somebody said this. Although nobody explicitly said it, I was getting the worrying impression that a lot of people here thought people with mental illnesses were broadly dangerous.

          2. Anna*

            Clever Name didn’t indicate it was untreated, only that he had it, hence the request for clarification.

            1. TL*

              You are right about that! My apologies; I assumed that the only reason Clever Name would be worried (or frankly even know; most people are pretty private about MIs because of the stigma) was because there were worsening symptoms with no signs of treatment.

              Clever Name, if it’s treated and under control (or if he’s seeking treatment and working on it), I would agree with the sentiment that he’s not dangerous just because he has a disease.

        2. mysticjeanie*

          Hey. As someone who studied psychology, schizoprenia is the worse diagnosis possible and one that should be feared and monitored so it doesn’t become worse.
          This is NOT a case to be PC all of a sudden!

          1. mysticjeanie*

            and as worse case, I meant that with bad behavior (like you mentioned), and it not being properly treated or handled, things can get worse.*
            And no, not all mentally ill are “violent”…however, some have agressive and violent tendencies and aren’t aware of what they are doing.

      3. Anna*

        Do you fear for them only because he’s suffering from schizophrenia or specifically because he doesn’t manage his schizophrenia? Schizophrenia does not automatically equal dangerous person if the person with it is doing what they need to do.

        1. sunny-dee*

          The thing with schizophrenia, though, is that the people routinely don’t do what they need to do. The meds have significant side effects, and once people start feeling “normal” but crappy (because of the side effects), they take themselves off the meds … and become less reliable.

          Schizophrenics are more likely than the general population to be violent[1]. That does not mean that they are always violent — just that as a group, schizophrenics are more likely to be violent than Average Joe on the street. Add in any substance (which is common because of self-medication), and that increases the likelihood of violence.

          The thing is, if the people suffering with mental illness that Anon or OP or Clever have concerns about were getting treatment, their behavior wouldn’t be deteriorating the way that OP/Anon/Clever are observing. That behavioral deterioration is a warning sign. It may mean nothing — they may get help or intervention or level off before anything bad happens. But that is a future action. They can’t know that now, and there is legitimate cause for concern.


          1. Anna*

            See my previous response. Clever Name didn’t indicate the person in question was not being treated or was not continuing with treatment, only that the person has schizophrenia.

      4. Bea W*

        Here’s the thing though, mentally ill people are rarely violent. They are more likely to be victims of violence themselves because they are so easily taken advantage of in a compromised mental state. We only hear about violence and mental illness because violence is what makes the news. The majority of people with mental illness don’t commit violent acts or any criminal acts so they are quietly overlooked while having to bare the burden of the stigma of the crazy violent nutjob shooting at and assaulting people indiscriminately. Movies and TV portrayals are even worse. No one wants to see the crazy protagonist living a mostly quiet life. That doesn’t make for a riveting but entirely fictional script.

        1. Chinook*

          The flip side is that violent schizophrenics can also go fom nice guy to crazy killer very quickly when the illness first hits. Their inital symtpoms may just come across as them being stressed and then, boom, they kill 5 friends at a party where even the neighbours were saying it wasn’t rowdy (real incident recenty on Calgary. A mental illness would be a logical explanation for somebody comig unarmed to a friend’s party and killing people who had called him friends)

          1. Chinook*

            As for the poor OP, I agree with AAM plus add that, if you are t the office, make sure you have a phone on you at all times so you can call the cops if he gets violent. Remember that no job is worth your life.

            1. aebhel*

              This. If you’re saying ‘The only way someone would do this is if they’re crazy’ and then using that as proof that people with MI are more likely to become violent, then you’re engaging in circular reasoning.

    3. Adam*

      I’m not an expert, but unless they have broken the law or endangered somebody there really isn’t anything to be done.

      So my best advice is evaluate this person’s influence on your life and determine whether or not remaining closely tied to them is good for you and your immediate family, assuming you have a spouse/partner and any children. You can’t control what the people in your life do, but to an extent you can control which people actually are in your life.

    4. KellyK*

      First and foremost, you accept that you can’t “make” someone get help.

      You can talk to them and tell them you’re worried about them for X and Y reasons and it would make you feel much better if they would seek professional help. (Whether you say this to the person or the spouse, or both separately, depends on how you think they’ll react—obviously you don’t have to do anything you think isn’t safe.)

      Depending on whether the spouse agrees with your concerns, even if they can’t/won’t get the mentally ill person to a doctor, there are still some things they can do to mitigate risks, like making sure their spouse doesn’t have access to firearms.

    5. Anon Accountant*

      Is there anyone that your relative has a good rapport with? One that can suggest about seeing a doctor for a checkup? Then if the relative agrees, give the doctor’s office a quick call about “Jim’s” symptoms and what has been witnessed?

      However if the individual doesn’t want help, unfortunately there’s not much you can do. Now if/when they’re posing a clear threat to their well being or another’s well being, contact police immediately.

    6. Anon Accountant*

      Also there’s organizations you can check into to provide support for family members affected by the relative’s illness. Local organizations are often in many towns- even small towns. Or National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has a website that may be worth checking out.

      1. Anon for this*

        Thank you for the resource; I will look into NAMI.

        This individual is very distrustful of “the system,” denies the paranoia, and then charms the socks off any outsiders who could help. The spouse is aware, but too loyal (or scared?) to say anything. Very frustrating, especially that the person was able to obtain a concealed carry permit (which is employed on a daily basis) due to the vague military paperwork.

        1. EG*

          If the owner has a concealed carry, I’d leave and not return, contacting the authorities after leaving. While the owner hasn’t shown any sign of physical violence, there is no knowing what would happen if he thought someone was in the office and out to get him.

          1. Anon for this*

            For sure – that is a combo that is not worth sticking around for.

            I am referring to my relative, though, not the LW’s boss.

            1. EG*

              Whoops, I combined the two. That’s what I get for reading too fast. For either situation, getting out fast is the best solution.

          2. CTO*

            I think “anon for this” is not the OP, but someone else with a family member exhibiting some of the same concerning behaviors as OP’s boss.

        2. littlemoose*

          +1 on NAMI. Lots of info and resources there.
          Unfortunately, when the mentally ill person has no insight and believes they are not ill, seeking and remaining compliant becomes a lot more difficult. I wish I had more suggestions for you, but I just can’t think of much to offer. I hope this improves, or at least doesn’t deteriorate; that everyone involved remains safe; and that your ill relative becomes receptive to treatment.

        3. Bea W*

          Being paranoid around some people then acting normal and charming around others as needed, on cue, demonstrates a high degree of awareness and self control. Someone with serious mental illness as the cause of his paranoia would not be able to pull that off with any consistency. Some people are just eccentric or jerks or whatever. You don’t have to have mental illness to act paranoid, weird, or violent.

          1. April*

            I’m not any expert on mental illness, but your comment has me wondering. Could it be possible for a person to be paranoid and as a result of that paranoia decide they have to be charming around certain folks because its the best defense mechanism against those folks? So some paranoid mentally ill persons might develop a fixation on guns to defend themselves against the imagined threats and other mentally ill paranoid persons might instead rely on charm as a defense against the imagined threats? And possibly a third person could be using both defenses at different times? Like I said, I am no expert and do not know the answers to these questions, I am just wondering if mental illness could ever work that way.

            1. Glor*

              I’m not Bea W, certainly, and I’m not a super big expert, BUT:

              Is it possible for a mentally ill person to use charm as a defense? Sure. I’ve seen it… and wound up doing it [I was… well, not in a safe place during one of my previous downturns], and it’s pretty draining, and if not done just right all the time it’s going to break down at some point. Some people’s paranoia results not in the whole “I must protect myself!” guns, guns, and more guns routine… but neither does it always result in tin foil hats. Sometimes the paranoia winds up forcing the person to be “perfect” all the time.

              Is it possible for them to combine? Uh, theoretically, I think, but in practice not so much? Any one single method of the above is really time and energy consuming, and could backfire because of different people seeing different sides of that paranoia. I’m sure someone could do it but that would be one of those stories that winds up on Cracked in an article about “the Creepiest Paranoid People You’ve Ever Seen” or something.

              1. April*

                Thanks for the information, that’s helpful. Sorry you had to deal with an unsafe experience.

          2. Anon for this*

            Bea W – yes, I understand that some people are just quirky.

            However, this relative goes beyond that. This person’s charming persona is a master manipulator who uses calm (if flawed and untrue) reasoning, and it is scary to see it turned on and off.

        4. mysticjeanie*

          Charms the socks off the outsiders? Is her a charmer? There’s a popular book out there subject about Sociopaths and how 1 in 25 people are.

    7. Lora*

      It’s really scary and I’m sorry you’re having to deal with this. The only thing I can tell you is, you can offer your support to the spouse and kids–if they feel unsafe or just need to talk openly/vent, if the spouse just needs a break from caretaking, let them know that your home is a safe place for them to stay (if that is feasible for you). You can let them know you are concerned and want to help any way you can.

      If Something Really Bad does happen, let them know you are STILL available to support them any way you can (because people tend to be happy to babysit on weekends and bring over casseroles and such, but when it comes to things like “I need someone to take the kids while I talk to the lawyer” people get all weird). They might need therapy appointments of their own, simply to cope with the stress of the situation, or to learn new coping skills for dealing with the spouse’s illness, and that can be a strain on logistics to figure out how to squeeze in appointments in between work, dinner, running the kids to piano lessons, etc. and you can help them out by offering to fix supper or take Junior to ballet or whatever.

      You can refrain from expressing judgment on the mentally ill person and their family and how they are or are not coping–I realize you probably already know this, but it’s amazing how many people get all “well if *I* were in this situation *I* would deal with it by blahblahblah, you’re doing life wrong you idiot” sort of thing. Just be quiet and listen if they want to talk and say things like “that sounds really hard, what do you think you’ll do? Is there anything I can do to help?” rather than “I’m not telling you what to DO about Chazz, Winifred, but if he were MY husband…”

      1. TL*

        But responses like, “that doesn’t sound normal/safe/okay.” (in a very neutral tone, the most neutral tone you can manage, and then just making noncommittal responses if they try to justify behaviors) can be very helpful. If you can gently and nonjudgmentally comment on how not-okay the behavior is, sometimes that’s what people need to realize they need to get out of there.

        1. Turanga Leela*

          +1, and I would add “That’s very scary” to the list of useful phrases to be said in a neutral tone.

        2. Lora*

          Oh sure, but it’s sort of hard to judge whether that would be well-received sometimes. It just really depends on the situation. Tends to come across better if you simply look alarmed and ask immediately, “oh my goodness, are you OK? Is there anything I can do to help?” because you’re still conveying that this is very much out of the ordinary, while at the same time offering your support.

          1. TL*

            Sure, if what they describe is dangerous/harmful to them. But if they’re like, “Oh, Jim came home yesterday convinced that the mailmen is using our mailbox to contact the Mafia again” then you need a different phrase to indicate that’s not normal.

            People normalize all kinds of stuff; you don’t have to – and often shouldn’t – make a big deal out of how not normal it is, but you should point it out, however quietly.

            1. Lora*

              Ah, I see what you mean. Yeah, in that case, my go-to reaction is a really puzzled look and “uh…what?” or “errrr. I don’t think I understand?” because there’s always the option that maybe I really, REALLY misunderstood something.

    8. Grace*

      It would be best to consult with an attorney who specializes in probate (which includes conservatorships) about a mentally ill relative.

  7. Anon Accountant*

    I’d consider moving my last day up to today. What a terrible situation for all involved.

    1. Kay*

      Although I agree that moving up the last day might be tempting, I would be somewhat concerned about being the thing that really makes him go off the deep end. I don’t have any advice. I hope everything goes smoothly and that you stay safe. Please send in an update with whatever happens!

  8. Lizabeth*

    Is it me or does this letter also point to possible drug abuse instead of mental illness?

    1. Traveler*

      It’s possible – but schizophrenia and other mental health problems have very similar symptoms.

      1. Bea W*

        Or it could be dementia or some disease of the brain or other physical condition. It’s impossible to know without a full physical and neuropsych workup.

    2. Anonymous*

      It doesn’t have to be either/or. It could easily be both/and. Many, many persons with a mental illness end up trying to self-medicate somehow, with everything from alcohol and pot to prescription drug abuse or stuff like cocaine or heroin.

      And in the end it really doesn’t matter, for the OP. If the family didn’t know that would be one thing but the wife is clearly already involved and there’s basically no-one that the OP can call and nothing she can do if there’s no active threat of harm. At least, not in any state I know of.

    3. Dang*

      It could be both- they frequently occur together. Or he could have recently gotten sober, which could also wreak havoc on already fragile brain chemistry..

  9. MR*

    I don’t really have much to add to what has been said above.

    An update on this would be nice to have, although you may not have much more to report on when you actually left/how that ended up going, and there being a bankruptcy notice in the newspaper a few months from now…

    1. BeenThere*

      I worked in an IT department where WTF stood for Wave The Flag, which also seems highly appropriate for this scenario.

  10. BadPlanning*

    Wow, OP, I’m glad you already have an exit plan. If you continue to go to work, you probably want to be very alert and ready and willing to call 911 if the owner shows up and is unwell (exhibiting manic/psychotic or behavior). At that point, if you are lucky, an ambulance and police will arrive and they will take him to the hospital and admit him on a hold and maybe he can start getting help. If he escalates to something violent first, then all bets are off.

    I think the best you can do otherwise, is be supportive to the other coworkers that are left. Help with resumes, be a reference, etc, so they can escape too.

    1. TL*

      +1 to this. Be prepared to call 9-1-1 if necessary. Don’t try to reason or control the situation yourself; just stay calm and contact the authorities!

  11. Dan*

    I’ve got some, uh, personal experience with the subject.

    1. Don’t call the spouse, nothing good for you will come from it. The spouse probably already knows anyway.

    2. I’m no mental health expert, but a part of this sounds like Paranoid Personality Disorder. Personality disorders have no magic pill that you can take to make them go away. If the afflicted person wants help and is willing to work treatment, then great. If not, you can’t “make” them do anything they don’t want to do. All you can do is stay out of the line of fire, which is what I had to do.

    It sucks and it’s hard, but it is what it is, and it’s all you can do.

    1. Dang*

      I’m not sure I would call the spouse either. There’s no way if it’s escalating this quickly that she has no idea what’s going on. There’s very little possibility of him only acting this way at work.

    2. EG*

      I agree, don’t call the spouse. She knows but either isn’t able to do anything right now, or is afraid herself. No good could happen from your boss finding out that you contacted his family about him.

      1. bob*

        She may or may not have a grasp of the entire situation. Unless she actually works in the office she’s only getting his side of the paranoid delusions when he goes home.

        To your point I would think there should be other signs in their personal life of the same paranoid behavior.

    3. Turanga Leela*

      Just want to note that paranoia can stem from many causes and isn’t necessarily a personality disorder. I’ve known people who experienced paranoia with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and other other mental illnesses. Some of those respond to medication, and people can make substantial recoveries if they get help.

      1. CR*

        +1. A personality disorder is pervasive, too, while something acute like schizophrenia or mania would be sudden-onset and escalating like this. Not that it truly matters what is affecting the boss, but it’s always good to try to eliminate confusion about mental illness. (Speaking as someone who works in mental health.)

    4. Rayner*

      I don’t know that it would be a good idea to throw around diagnosis(s) on this place. As we don’t have medical degrees all around, and we only have the OP’s letter to go on, it’s not easy for us to suggest what is or is not wrong with this person mentally.

      Mental illness is diverse, and lots of conditions share symptoms, such as paranoia and irrationality.


      1. TL*

        Not to mention, diagnosing mental diseases is very subjective and, er, varies a lot depending on who and where you’re getting diagnosed.
        It doesn’t really matter what/if he has anything, besides.

        1. Rayner*


          I’m curiously reminded of the experiment “Being Sane in Insane Places” or whatever it was. How just existing in a ‘insane place’ like a secure unit changed how normal behaviours were perceived. Or getting a label meant that everything was viewed through that label.

          1. Carpe Librarium*

            I remember a movie line, I think it was in Changeling, when a character is placed in a mental health facility despite not having a mental illness.
            Another of the residents says advises that the more you try to prove you’re sane, the crazier you seem.

      2. short'n'stout*

        Agreed – and the specifics of the diagnosis are tangential, anyway. It makes little difference why the business owner is acting this way when the primary point is advising the OP how to respond.

      3. Dan*

        You guys are picking up on what may be the least significant part of my post. I was trying to get across the point that certain things have no magic cure, and further, you really can’t do a damn thing if the afflicted person doesn’t want help.

        Whether or not this person has a diagnosable condition is more or less irrelevant to this discussion.

        Source: I’ve been that spouse.

        1. Rayner*

          I pointed out something that I found problematic in your post. I don’t have an issue with the rest of it.

          You posted it, so I replied to a part of it. Whether or not you think it was the ‘least significant’ part doesn’t change that I felt it was problematic.

      4. Sarahnova*

        I agree; most of us are not qualified in this field, none of us have all the relevant information, and getting into armchair-diagnostician mode tends to only serve the purpose of further stigmatising mental illness.

        I believe in this situation, it’s recommended to focus on the problematic behaviour and what the OP/observer can do about it. His theoretical diagnosis, or drug addiction, is less relevant than the fact that he is preventing any work from being done and exhibiting behaviour that suggests he may get violent.

    5. Not So NewReader*

      I am agreeing with Dan, in saying do not call the spouse. You have no idea what you would be walking into. Right now it sounds like you are mostly in the clear. Stay there. Focus on extracting yourself from the situation. Most of us have a tendency to want to help. But the rule is do not try to help people who do not want help. You will only end up injured in some manner if you do.
      The idea about using up sick time is a good one. I would shoot for that plan. You may want to go back one more day and tell the coworkers good bye, or not, that depends on what your gut says to do.
      Understand that the unpredictability of the situation will only continue. This is more than an emotional roller coaster. There is more at stake than your emotions. Your reputation is also at stake and possibly other things. Please think in terms of the years to come. Your top priority is to keep yourself safe. If you can help someone while you remain safe then, okay. But I think you have plenty to do just keeping yourself away from this mess.

      Am hoping for the best for the IT guy- he has a tough road. I hope he finds an attorney soon.
      Please let us know how it goes for you.

  12. Case of the Mondays*

    If your boss is an attorney there is almost certainly a lawyer assistance line you can anonymously report him to. They won’t disclose it was you but he will know “someone” called and may get fired up over that. If you are also a lawyer, you have a duty to report him, most likely. There may be something similar for accountants. Other than that, I don’t know what more you can do.

    1. Grace*

      And also call the police since the boss can be arrested and taken in for mental health care if he’s a danger to himself and others.

      1. Observer*

        It’s almost impossible to force someone to get treatment if he is “only” a danger to himself.

        The idea is that he should be given the “choice” to get treatment or refuse. What the activists who push this kind of thing forget (or just refuse to acknowledge) is that the fundamental reason that people present a danger to themselves is generally that they are UNABLE to make rational decisions, not that they CHOOSE not to.

        Even if he also presents a danger to others, the bar is pretty high for forcing treatment.

        1. Bea W*

          Actually we do neither, and many activists have been there done that themselves or had experience with someone close to them which drove them to advocate for changes and civil and legals rights for people labeled with mental illness. I wouldn’t assume we’re all either ignorant or turning a blind eye on account we disagree about how to handle people exhibiting or labeled with mental illness.

      2. Anon*

        This is not always possible.

        This also makes a public spectacle out of whatever’s going on, which isn’t helpful to anyone (pretty traumatic for the people involved most closely, too).

        I seriously think this man needs to get medical and psychological help immediately, but an arrest just isn’t the way to do it.

      3. ella*

        The police are not actually an effective or compassionate way to access the mental health care system. (At least not in my city.) Even if they showed up and arrested the person, AT MOST he could be involuntarily committed on a 72-hour hold for evaluation (unless he’s done something heinous or violent that is a cause for arrest outside of whatever is going on inside his head). Then he’d (probably) be back on the street to do whatever. You can’t MAKE people access mental health services.

  13. Celeste*

    The spouse knows. If everything he says is true: she does payroll, he has brought computers home, and she has been to unplug the computers…then she knows things are changing in strange ways.

    I don’t think any good is going to come from you calling her.

    If you can’t do your work because of what he’s done, and you’ve already found a new job, I think you should just leave. I don’t think there is anything you can fix in this situation, and frankly he sounds scary. If a situation doesn’t feel right, listen to that feeling.

    1. Anon*

      +1. The spouse knows. She might already be trying to get help for him. I hope she is!

      At this point, OP, all you can do is get yourself into a better situation.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      My husband had symptoms of physical illness, not mental illness. But believe me, for every story someone told me, I had
      THREE stories. The spouses know something is up long before it becomes common knowledge at work. So she knows.

      She is either a) working on her escape plan; b) trying to get help or help him, c) scared out of her wits or d) all of the above.
      I firmly believe that if she wants OPs help or the help of anyone else she will find away to reach out to them. (Or someone around her will reach out.)

      It’s important for OP to know that this is something that will take a team of people in different capacities to solve. One person should not be attempting to do anything on their own.

      But as a wife, for someone from work to call up and say there is a problem- uh, no. Please don’t do that.

      1. mysticjeanie*

        I can only imagine.

        It’s not only quite embarassing but now YOU know it’s in the public’s mind. No need.

  14. Anonymint*

    I’m so, so sorry you’re going through this – my former manager has Bipolar Disorder (which he proudly and vocally refused treatment for) and it was so hard to know how to deal with it as an employee. You want to be compassionate to someone dealing with something so difficult, but at the same time you have to protect yourself.

    In my office, it got so bad that he was calling me in the middle of the night with “great ideas to be implemented ASAP!” (during the last manic period I worked through) and was starting to effect my mental health and well-being — I actually started questioning my perception of reality based on his actions.

    I’m so glad you’re getting out of the office, and I hate to say that contacting his wife may not do anything. My former boss’ wife was an enabler, and I always felt for their young daughter growing up in such a chaotic environment. She would not have taken it well if I’d reached out about my concerns.

    If possible, I would leave a detailed description of your concerns with the attorney you mention – that way, you have his actions on record with a neutral party. I left a file of our most unsettling interactions with the third-party HR rep our company used and it made me feel like I’d done my part to report his behavior without putting myself and my professional reputation in jeopardy within our community.

  15. TotesMaGoats*

    I’m going to agree with the group. Don’t call the wife. Don’t do anything that might attract his attention. It could very well backfire on you but it could also backfire on the wife. Based solely on your descriptions, this guy needs some serious help. When people go off the deep end, they can either implode or explode. One of those is more dangerous to you. Stay safe.

  16. Mimmy*

    Yeah in reading others’ comments, I’m not so sure contacting his wife is the wisest thing to do. Even if she promises to keep the communication confidential, he’ll figure it out somehow just based on his level of paranoia.

    Congrats on getting a new, hopefully saner, job. You don’t say when your last day is, but if it’s not this week, MAKE it this week. Toughing it out any longer than that is not worth your sanity. And yes, definitely stay in touch with trusted current or former coworkers for references.

    Good luck, and please let us know how things turn out.

    1. Student*

      They should contact the wife so she understands how this is impacting the business. It’s not a heads-up to say, “Hey, your husband’s got a mental problem.” It is a heads-up to tell her, “You are about to become the sole breadwinner for your family.” It at least gives her a chance to figure out something so they don’t end up on the street or deep in business debts. Whether she acts on the info is her decision, and she may not. But I think it’s a lot like letting a neighbor know that a wildfire is headed toward their house – common decency obligates you to give the disaster warning, but not to do anything beyond that.

  17. Artemesia*

    I think you should leave now. Paranoia and this degree of acting out in a society in which gun ownership is so easy adds up to real danger. He feels people are plotting against him; a natural response would be to ‘defend himself’. I would not want to be there the day he decides to ‘take care of’ his IT director problem.

    Yes — probably won’t happen, but it happens often enough that I would err on the side of a long life.

    I had a boss once who was mentally ill but at nowhere near this level; he eventually killed himself, something that several of us had predicted would happen. Knowing what I now know, I would have not waited around. Serious paranoia is dangerous.

    I feel for his family. There are so few things that can be done in situations like this unless the sick person recognizes his illness. And of course part of this illness is denial that there is anything wrong with himself. A friend of mine had a husband who became delusional like this — she was unable to get him any effective treatment. We were terrified for her and the kids but she was convinced he wasn’t dangerous. Eventually he did something weird with gasoline in the house and caught himself and the house on fire. Luckily the kids were not home and only he died — a long and agonizing death. He was a great guy — but the illness took him down. Very sad for everyone in this situation.

  18. C Average*

    I’m not a doctor and I don’t play one on the interwebs, but can’t these sorts of personality changes also be symptomatic of brain tumors and head injuries?

    (This is somewhat top-of-mind for me a the moment because a colleague who’s normally a very organized, together, go-getter kind of guy recently started feeling fuzzy and forgetful and lethargic, and it turned out he DOES have a brain tumor, which is fortunately being treated now with a high likelihood of success.)

    I do think someone from his family should be notified (anonymously, if necessary) so there’s an opportunity to steer him toward getting a full medical and psychological workup. It would be tragic if this turned out to be something treatable that ran its course because he didn’t seek treatment and no one intervened.

    1. Lily in NYC*

      I was just coming to write a similar comment. We had a coworker who suddenly started acting very similar to this guy – paranoid to the extreme. Thankfully her family noticed as well and took her to the doctor. She had a brain tumor and was completely back to normal after surgery. So my question for OP is – was this a sudden onset thing or has he always seemed mentally ill and is now getting worse?

    2. Totally Normal Person*

      You are trying to be sympathetic to the boss and that is very admirable. We need much more of that in a society that has very little understanding of, or sympathy for, mental illness.

      However, in this case, we are not talking about someone feeling fuzzy and forgetful. We are talking about pretty extreme paranoid delusions.

      If this is a sole proprietorship (as the letter says) and the owner is taking servers home and having his wife unplug computers, there is no way she is not aware of the situation (though, she may be in denial about the severity of the situation).

      Unfortunately, this is not the time to be patient with a mentally ill person. This is the time for the OP to protect themselves by getting out of there, and helping others get out of there as well. This man may be a ticking time bomb.

      As others have commented, notifying his wife or anyone else (even anonymously) may be what pushes him over the edge. This could even further endanger the people that are still there. The time for notifying family members is long past. The time for the non-mentally-ill people to protect themselves is now.

      Again, I think your level of sympathy here is commendable, but at this point I think it is clear about the only thing the OP can do is save themselves.

      1. C Average*

        I totally agree that the LW’s first responsibility is to protect himself. As they say in mountaineering, never create a second victim by attempting a rescue that puts the rescuer at risk. So yeah, the LW can and should escape, and shouldn’t feel guilty for not trying to intervene.

        My point was that there could be an alternative explanation, and the problem could be something with a fairly straightforward medical cause that would respond to treatment. If there’s a safe way to raise this possibility with a family member (obviously not the wife, who as you note has proven not to be part of any solution here), I think the LW or someone else should. That’s all.

        1. Totally Normal Person*

          Yes, I think you have an excellent point, it could be an alternative explanation that nobody is considering. Unfortunately, we can only go on what little information there is in the OP’s letter.

          My disagreement about contacting the family is for a purely pragmatic reason. Obviously, any information (even submitted anonymously) about what is going on in the workplace will have come from an employee of the business. The boss may be so unstable that he decides to exact revenge on the entire office regardless of who contacted his family. Stranger things have happened.

    3. TL*

      As someone who has lived with a person with some pretty severe mental issues – there is absolutely no way his wife doesn’t know. Whether or not she realizes how serious it is, or that he’s exhibiting symptoms in public, or if she’s in deep denial or fearful of acting is a whole ‘nother story, but I would bet the bank that she knows how bizarrely she’s acting.

      I wouldn’t suggest contacting the wife; I would suggest letting other coworkers know that you think this could end up being a very dangerous situation; have a plan if he shows up completely deranged one day and maybe share information on how best to deal with someone so far gone.

    4. Not So NewReader*

      I had a family member who was diagnosed paranoid, schizophrenic and a couple other things. It took the medical people decades but they finally found that tumor in his head. Once they got it out, and he came out of recovery he was able to say that he had felt it in his head for his entire life.

      We just don’t know. There are so many possible explanations out there. And we need explanations, because this stuff is frightening, because we don’t want to think of anyone as capable of doing bad/evil, and/or because it makes sense out of what seems to be chaos. (A parallel example is the missing plane. Unexplained things can be deeply unsettling.)

      I do believe there is probably a physical basis for the behaviors OP is seeing. So, yeah, could be a form of cancer. OP, when you look back on this situation in years to come, I hope you have found some idea as to what happened and why. (Am shaking my head. This is the type of thing that a person remembers for the rest of their lives.)

    5. Fucshia*

      Since it sounds like he was fine up until a few months ago, I would expect a medical cause too. It doesn’t really change the OP’s situation since he’s still irratic, but it may make it easier to treat (if his wife can convince him to seek help).

    6. Sarahnova*

      It could be a brain tumour, and I appreciate your willingness to consider best-case scenarios – but for the OP, at this stage, does it matter?

      It will take a professional medical and psychiatric workup to find out what’s actually going on with this guy, and there’s really nothing the OP can do to make that happen. Her responsibilities remain to 1) protect herself and 2) get out of the situation.

  19. Anonymouse*

    The boss’s wife knows what’s happening. She may be unable or unwilling (perhaps experiencing some serious denial) to do anything about it, but she knows.

    I’m not a psychologist, and I don’t believe in armchair internet diagnosing, but I do research in a mental health and addictions program, so I’m not entirely uninformed about this sort of thing. OP- approximately how old is your boss? Many psychotic disorders make their first appearances between the late teens and about age 30. Have there been other erratic behaviours or “signs” in the previous months or years- for example, extreme mood swings, irritability, lashing out in anger over seemingly minor things, hyperactivity or lethargy? How about erratic attendance at work, or bursts of late night/weekend activity (I mean, if that’s unusual for him)? Changes in personal hygiene or grooming? Mismanagement of money (personal or company)? All of these things could be signs of an emerging and now escalating mental illness, but could also point to substance abuse- as another commentor mentioned, substance abuse and mental illness go hand-in-hand as many individuals will try to self-medicated. The paranoia, on first glance, points to a mental illness- delusions about surveillance are very, very common in schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorders- but there are definitely drugs that make people increasingly paranoid.

    As for your safety and your co-workers safety, bear in mind that mental illness != violence 100% of the time. However, people experiencing psychotic episodes are unpredictable and difficult to read (after all, the reality they are experiencing is not the same as yours) and psychoses can make people lash out unexpectedly and occasionally violently. If your coworker has access to or a fondness for weapons; if drugs are in the picture; and if they have real issues with actual or perceived authority and/or an expressed intent to retaliate for perceived wrongs; these things increase the possibility of violence.

    Mental health workers are trained to acknowledge delusions but not to buy into them- that is, to not pretend that they are real. In your case and the case of your coworkers, though, going along with your boss is probably your best bet in terms of safety until you can all get out- hopefully sooner rather than later. In the meantime, basic safety precautions such as not working alone in the office, trying to have another coworker present when talking to the boss, etc. might be helpful. Unfortunately, if you are in North America, and if your boss is legally an adult, until he presents a threat to himself or other people, there is nothing that can be done. It’s a great failing of our society that we fail to acknowledge or treat mental illness until its too late.

    1. Totally Normal Person*

      Thank you for writing this. It is easy to say that someone else should “say something”, but at the end of the day there is nothing that can be done until it is too late. Even people saying that the OP should inform the family anonymously are not accounting for the fact that even an anonymous warning about what is going on in the office will have, obviously, come from one of the employees. Who wants to be in the office on the day the boss comes in to clean house after the “anonymous” tip off?

      1. Celeste*

        Exactly! This situation is made so much worse by the sole proprietorship. There is no way to spread out the concern by having it go through HR, etc. Anything that is said comes back on the individual.

      2. Traveler*

        This isn’t an open and shut case though. I totally understand and agree with your point about that pushing him off the deep end, but there’s also the other side. Who wants to be the victim because no one in the office told someone on the outside? Or made sure all parties were informed of the extent of his mental illness? There’s absolutely NO guilt the OP should feel about not saying something, as they need to protect themselves first, but it’s a decision they have to make – which is why I think Alison mentioned it.

        1. Totally Normal Person*

          Good point. And I can see doing just that once everyone is safely and permanently out of the office.

          Either way, it is an odds game.

  20. Natalie*


    If for some reason he doesn’t know, I would give the IT Director a head’s up about the boss’s paranoia towards him. He needs to make an assessment of his own safety, too.

    1. Totally Normal Person*

      Agreed. If the OP is going to tip off anybody it should be this IT person.

    2. Jamie*

      Absolutely. I can’t imagine how he wouldn’t know what was going on, but if he doesn’t for god’s sake tell him.

      And I don’t know how he’s still there, because no way would I be around someone this unstable who has paranoid delusions about me. He needs to make his last day yesterday.

      1. Rayner*

        Or he might not know how bad it’s gotten. Might be a good idea to get him to do a Jaime there, and give notice toute de suite.

        1. Jamie*

          A couple of things he should do to protect himself when he leaves:

          1. He needs to make a comprehensive list of all passwords and keys to leave behind. In case legally accused of sabotage he wants to leave as clean as possible and not forget anything.

          2. He needs to turn in all equipment (phones, laptops, password db, misc gear), credit cards, etc. to someone besides the owner alone and he needs to get a signed receipt. Absolutely 100% he needs witness(es) on the turn over and he needs something in writing. You guys have an attorney – that’s who I’d use.

          3. He needs to jot down a log of what happened when (removal of the servers, accusations of tampering with the wi-fi in India, whatever) as best he can and he needs to keep a contemporaneous log of all such contact going forward.

          4. He needs to, right now, make sure he’s got copies of all strange emails, post-its, whatever, so if the boss comes after him legally he has evidence.

          5. He needs to ask for personal email addys and contact info of anyone who could be a witness and would be willing to speak on his behalf in case of future legal action. Bare minimum he needs to know everyone’s last names.

          1. Rayner*

            This is very wise, Jaime. Thanks for that :D Good advice from someone who knows what they’re talking about.

  21. Turanga Leela*

    I’m putting in a vote for calling the wife. Even if she sees what’s happening, it might be helpful to hear from someone else that her husband isn’t acting rationally, and also that you’re worried about him. I once dated someone with a paranoid streak (mercifully not this bad), and it took having a witness in the room for me to realize just how crazy he was acting. Mentioning your concerns to the wife will validate her observations, which is huge. Of course, if she has bought into the delusions too, it won’t help, but very little will at that point.

    Also, I agree with the consensus that you should leave as soon as you can.

  22. Programmer 01*

    Hey OP, having just re-read “The Gift of Fear” recently —

    Honestly? Get out.

    I am not saying that mental illnesses are a cause for panic or distrust, but no matter what is causing it, this situation as you lay it out does not sound safe. It’s not going to end well or neatly, where things are so unpredictable and are escalating fast. Your commitment to the job and your clients is commendable, but seriously, if there has been a little voice saying maybe you should get out, listen to it.

    I feel awful for his family as well, but your first responsibility is your safety. If you were the IT director I’d also say the police would be an option, but as you’re not being threatened and that will DEFINITELY bring things to a boil, this is not your responsibility and there is nothing you can currently do for this person. It’s awful. It sucks. But staying is not going to do you any good. If you can access things from home you can try to help your clients through there, but this ship is sinking and full of bears and on fire.

  23. anon in tejas*

    just fyi, I think that it should be considered that the Wife and/or his family may not openly discuss mental illness. Coming at it from the point of view of contacting Wife/Family to say, “I think X is exhibiting signs of mental illness” may not result in any action.

    I would consider who is paying you (boss or company). Is there someone higher up at your company that you can go to? Also, I would consider talking with management about a safety plan in case X comes in and starts acting violent.

  24. Betsy Bobbins*

    This paranoid behavior is also consistent with meth use…just another possiblity outside of mental illness. I had a friend who’s husband went down that path and literally put holes in the walls of his home looking for recording devices. He accused her parents of spying on him with the satellite dish on their home. He ended up killing himself surrounded by pages material he had written detailing the people and corporations he believed to be plotting against him. The only bright note to this story is the fact he only harmed himself and not others, it could have easily gone the other way. If I were the OP I would leave sooner rather than later.

    1. Puddleduck O'Leary*

      Yikes, your poor friend! I was going to suggest this also. My father is a meth addict, and he has all sorts of illogical delusions like the OP’s boss is experiencing, It’s hard to distinguish meth use from mental illness, but if his demeanor has become more hyper, he talks significantly faster, he has lost weight, and his skin is breaking out, it is likely meth abuse. Meth addicts are extremely unpredictable and can be prone to violence, so I would get out of there ASAP alsol

  25. Elizabeth West*

    This situation is untenable. They can’t even do their work. I guess the attorney knows, if he talked to the guy and got an earful of paranoia. I might contact him (the attorney) and discuss it with him. He could have some ideas about what they need to do. I think if anyone talks to the spouse, it should be him (and you better believe the spouse knows something is wrong, but she may be in denial or not know what to do).

    Anonymouse had some good suggestions for OP and coworkers . This isn’t going to end well. I hope we get an update. And I hope the boss can get some help.

    1. Ruffingit*

      Seconded on talking to the attorney about this. She clearly knows something is wrong since she’s spoken to him. Call her and ask what, if anything, you should do here. You can also always stop by a police station, explain the situation and ask if there’s anything you can/should do here.

      End of the day, protect yourself. Move up your exit date to RIGHT NOW. I’m not sure I’d bother coming in anymore so you can sit there for 8 hours and literally do nothing. What’s the point? Get out now if you can.

  26. Interviewer*

    If I were married to this guy, and had kids with him, I would really want to know that he was firing entire departments and scaring his remaining employees so much that they were quitting on the spot. Maybe she doesn’t know how to find help, or maybe she doesn’t realize how bad it’s gotten.

    As someone who might be relying on this man to support me and our children, I would want to know from outside sources that he’s falling apart. Home life may be one thing, and I might be hearing a bunch of lies about what’s going on at work, but I would be very hesitant to call an employee to discuss the boss’s behavior.

    Anyway, one vote for leaving today, but figuring out how to get in touch with the wife. And figuring out how to say it to her as sensitively as you have done here, with concrete examples of behavior rather than a possible diagnosis or a bunch of assumptions.

    There are very clear warning signs. You should pay attention to them.

    Good luck.

  27. Ask a Manager* Post author

    The OP sent me an update this afternoon:

    “I’ve already started my new job, and this is a great place! Unfortunately, I received a text from the attorney yesterday informing me that the owner attempted suicide two days ago. The down side is that those left will likely go on unemployment. The up side is that this man will get the help he needs. I know it will be difficult for him and his family now, but I know they also have strong family support to help see them through this.”

    1. Rayner*

      Oh, that’s sad.

      It’s not good news but at least he’s getting help and his family are now aware and in control of the situation.

    2. Anon Accountant*

      That’s awful. Hopefully he will receive proper treatment and he and his family have support to help them all through.

    3. Arbynka*

      It must be so haunting to believe “they” are after you, especially when “they” become everyone.

    4. Kate*

      Not good news, but I’m relieved to hear this since (a) the attempt didn’t work and (b) the owner and family are presumably now getting the help they need. And happy that LW is happy with their new job!

    5. Nina*

      I’m just relieved that the OP got out of the situation before it got any more harmful. I hope the manager will get the help he needs.

    6. Ruffingit*

      I am sorry to hear this, but also glad because the suicide attempt was not successful and became the catalyst for his being able to get help. That is a good outcome to a very bad situation. I will pray for him and his family.

    7. Lady Sybil*

      What a terrible situation. There is so much fear surrounding mental illness and it really came through in the comments. I’m not judging, just noticing. Allison, I’m glad you suggested the OP contact his spouse, that’s what I would consider doing too. It’s a tough situation to provide advice on and I’m so glad you tackled it. Kudos to you.

      I’m so sorry to hear about his suicide attempt. I hope he is recovering and will be in good mental health soon. As long as life goes on there is hope. I hope the OP is able to reach out to his family, even just to wish him better, as dealing with mental health issues can be so isolating.

    8. Mimmy*

      Wow, I’d say you got really lucky with your timing in starting a new job and I’m very happy that you are in a much healthier environment. Glad that the boss will finally be getting the help he needs, but sad that it took a suicide attempt to make that happen. I wish everyone involved nothing but the best.

    9. The Other Katie*

      I am sorry to hear about his attempt, but I am glad he was not successful and that he can get the help he needs.

      1. DrJulieSunny*

        Just saw this update (I really should read the posts before commenting!) and it sounds like all the right things are being done now. Glad the OP is doing well too!!

  28. anon-2*

    It’s truly sad. I was in a situation like this once, where I (and the rest of the staff) suspected that the manager was not well.

    It was a “Caine Mutiny” situation – but instead of attempting to overthrow the manager, we tried our best to help. Then again, the actions became intolerable. Two of us left, one guy stayed after working out a truce (long story).

    You have to protect YOUR OWN sanity and well-being first..

    I sincerely hope that your former manager receives the help he needs. If I were in your shoes – and I’m not — I might call the manager’s wife and offer emotional support.

  29. IAmOP*

    Thanks, all. I don’t want to get into the whole thing, but it definitely escalated before I left. I’m just glad there are professionals involved at this point. Mr. IT left the day after I did; he was really afraid for his own safety. But he and the others are smart, talented people who will land on their feet. I’m hoping that I hear some good news down the road about the boss. He has a great entrepreneurial spirit and good ideas, and it was just sad to watch his decline. If I receive an update, I will definitely share it with you.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      You sound good, OP, for all you went through. Good for you. May your new job be a 1000 times better. You have had a lifetime of bad job scenarios wrapped into one job.

    2. KAZ2Y5*

      Wow, this letter has had me more worried than anything I have read here before! I’m so glad you are ok, OP! And that your former boss’s suicide attempt was unsuccessful. Hopefully he will now get the help he needs.
      I had a family member with mental problems who eventually killed himself. When comparing notes later, we found out that he had looked for every family member in the immediate area just before he killed himself. Our fear is that he was trying to take someone with him. Needless to say, this letter kind of shook me up! So glad things turned out like they did!

    3. Mimmy*

      All the best to you (((hugs))). You have a good outlook, and that will definitely serve you well.

  30. Kathleen*

    Wow, OP I’m so sorry.
    What a terrible situation.
    I hope the attorney and others in your office are able to be references for those who are left unemployed. I’m pretty sure Alison has covered what to do when your reference isn’t available.

    Because your boss was specifically making threats against the IT director, I think a call to the police department may have been in order, ( Obviously, this is now unnecessary) You would call the non emergency line and ask if there was a community relations officer available to talk. They can make the call about adding extra patrols to your office area or contacting the boss. If nothing else it gives them a heads up about the situation should things escalate. (which they did , I’m so sorry) It doesn’t have to be an emergency to talk to the police. The criteria for taking someone in to custody is that they are a threat to themselves or others. If he was threating other people, he was starting to meet that criteria. I’m glad everyone is safe now. Thank you for updating us so quickly.

  31. Lanya*

    I’m very sorry to hear what happened, but I’m glad the boss is getting the help he needs. It can be difficult to know how to intervene in these kinds of situations.

    I do feel like a lot of the comments that emerged with this question were overkill as far as the stigma of people with mental health issues being unsafe to be around, or wanting to injure or cause harm to others. That is grossly inaccurate. My husband has bipolar disorder, and he has explained that even in his most manic states, he would be more likely to harm himself than anyone else. This boss was showing signs of paranoia and delusions, not wielding knives and stabbing weapons at work. We should always leave a situation if we feel unsafe, but I don’t think that was really the OP’s sentiment here.

    1. Observer*

      In general you are correct. However, in some cases, the issue is very real and it’s a legitimate thing to worry about.

      What your husband says makes a lot of sense – for someone who is only bi-polar. Paranoia and delusions create a very, very different scenario. And, in this case, the owner had already acted on his paranoia in ways that hurt others, although not physically. Given the level of his paranoia and his willingness to act on his delusions, it is NOT unreasonable or unfair to worry about safety.

      1. Lanya*

        With respect, paranoia and delusions are classic symptoms of a bipolar manic episode, so I’m not sure why the OP’s situation would be such a different scenario.

        When the boss’s behavior sadly escalated to physical violence, it was only against himself.

        So, while I agree that it’s always important to worry about one’s own safety, my original point still stands – just because someone is having an episode, it doesn’t mean they are out to get others.

  32. Anonaconda*

    Here’s another vote for moving your last day up to now. I’d encourage your co-workers to do the same, honestly. It’s not worth it to risk your safety for whatever money you would make. He’s made it impossible for you to work, what’s the point of coming in and staring at the wall and pretending that everything is fine? This is not a workplace anymore, it’s the site for someone to play out their mental breakdown. I really hope your boss gets the help he needs and that you can protect yourself. I feel for you both.

  33. Kerr*

    What a sad situation. I’m sorry it escalated so far, but I’m glad he seems to be getting help.

    I almost hate to bring it up, but Alison, is there a chance you’d consider retitling this post slightly? It’s not inaccurate (at least, judging by the OP’s updates it isn’t), but the assumption that mentally ill boss = problem is…problematic. There are plenty of workers and bosses who are managing their mental illnesses, and don’t go around taking away computers and firing entire departments for plotting against them. “My boss is acting paranoid and has unplugged our servers” = problem. “Mentally ill,” on the other hand, isn’t.

  34. DrJulieSunny*

    I’m a clinical psychologist and I might have a very different perspective here. (I’m not sure if anyone else has addressed this.)

    Most bets are off when someone – anyone, whether it’s a colleague, friend, neighbor, family member, etc – becomes increasingly erratic and delusional and paranoid. This particular pattern of behaviors is very very consistent with someone who has a psychotic disorder WITH paranoia … often a dangerous combination. Dangerous, as in, some people who suffer from psychosis (like schizophrenia) with paranoid delusions can, in their erratic and chaotic behaviors, sometimes become a danger to themselves or others. With paranoia, it doesn’t always escalate to physical danger but it most certainly can.

    I’m sorry but this is a bigger issue than work etiquette or comments about how wrong or whatever it is that your boss is bringing this to the work place/the company not stepping in. Most states have mandated reporting laws (in my state, I am required by law to contact emergency resources and identify myself if I learn that someone is at imminent risk to themselves or others) and if you are in the U.S., and you feel concerned about your safety, or your co-workers, especially Mr. IT, or your boss, you need to strongly consider contacting *someone* who can help — I’d call 911 if there’s an immediate urgency. BUT you can also contact: the 911 non-emergency line and ask them what to do or a local mental health authority (e.g., google the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill – NAMI – and contact their local office … all you have to do is tell them what is going on, or google 1-800 #’s for hotlines — e.g., the VA has a national crisis hotline for veterans at 1-800-273-8255).

    This is a long response but I hope you read it, OP, if you haven’t already gotten this advice from other posters. (i typed this out quickly after reading your post so I could get this out asap).

    On a final note, however, please DON’T panic based on what I just said. You are all safe and he’s probably safe and it’s not a freak-out situation right now. But these are resources you should know in case you feel unsafe or want to do something. And you’re not under any obligation to do any of these things if you’re not comfortable (but if you EVER feel unsafe at work or around him, call 911 immediately). When in doubt, talk it over with a trusted person.

    Good luck. I’m sorry this is all unfolding around you! Life is hard enough ….

      1. mysticjeanie*

        He and the family are very lucky is survived is attempt. Now they can monitor and treat him. It will be hard…but it seemed to me he obviously wasn’t getting the attention he needed.

  35. Recent Grad*

    I agree with the post above that is excellent information. From my experience I would like to add that you should be able to remain anonymous(if you ask) when you call the authorities above. You can say that you believe that you have encountered a gentleman acting erratically and give them his tag number(if you are able to grab this info without being noticed). Many times a person can be arrested simply for disturbing the peace or behaving in an aggressive manner. Do not do this at work unless you feel that you are in danger. In my state in this situation the police will respond and once they see his behavior will detain him where he will eventually end up in either jail or the mental ward of a hospital. His behavior will determine where he is taken first sadly. If he is determined to not be on drugs he will be evaluated further by mental health specialists and admitted to a mental health facility in consultation with the closest kin where his treatment will continue. He will not leave the facility until the staff believe he is stable enough to be discharged. He will only be discharged after being evaluated and will be sent home with prescriptions and the doctors will suggest doctors(or continue to see him) and counselors if he already does not have them. It is sad to have to call the police or the authorities, but currently this is the only option in the U.S. that gets results. Your safety and the safety of this gentleman is important don’t be a hero. Please understand that this is not your responsibility, and if you choose to leave your job today no one will blame you. I hope this terrible situation will help you to develop a plan to deal with these instances when you are promoted to a management position in the future. I wish you the best

  36. Mercy*

    I went through a similar situation in 2012 & 2013. The business owner was declared mentally incompetent and even though we have named head departments officials in real life my boss and I were the only ones in the office running the show. She was/still is a micro-controller, the one that knew how to do things since all of them including me, were stupid people that she has to deal with in order to keep the business going. After 8 years working like that she was diagnosed and been unable to make any decisions her husband, also in payroll, took over not knowing a thing in how to run her business.
    In that note I coach everybody, Med Director, DON, Administrator even the Accouter on how things were done over the years by her at the best of my knowledge and doing my regular duties. She used to call me up to 42 times a day, calling me all sort of names, blaming me for everything and on and on again. I continue keeping the business open for over 2 years hopping she will return to her senses until they closed last Nov. so out the door I went with 3 month consolations package and not even an “I’m sorry” or “Thank you” I still unemployed, no money, emotionally and mentally destroy, no self values and the worst part is that she still calling me.

  37. Felipe' Brown*

    I currently work with an individual that is mentally ill. She is an assistant principal at a middle school and I am the counselor. We work in the same suite and my office is right next to hers. Our entire work day depends upon how she feels each day. She frequently cries all day if things don’t go her way and she is driven by anxiety like an animal. I have counseled many people in my same situation and they always left their job. You can never surrender to idiots like this who find value in projecting their own misery onto the individuals they work with…the sad thing is she is in a position to evaluate others around me. The only way to win is to get out…Don’t allow others to exploit you and tell you things like, “you don’t have a positive attitude” or “you’re not a team player”, or “you’re selfish for thinking about yourself”. Don’t allow others to exploit you and draw a healthy boundary. If you stay it becomes your fault for enabling the mentally ill person to continue to be evil…

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