My Mother is Suspicious of Others

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Reader’s Question

I am really worried about my mother. She is about 43 years old and I think she may have some sort of mental illness. I’ve hinted to her that I would like her to see a psychologist, but I’m not sure.

My mother had a very bad relationship with her parents when she was young, and is constantly referring back to how badly they treated her, repeating the same phrases over and over. She often speaks nonsense, and goes off on random tangents which are of no interest to anyone; nor can anyone understand.

It seems to me as though she makes things up, and she is highly suspicious of people she may have met for a few short minutes, thinking that they do not like her in some way. I’ve heard her complain about almost all my friends’ parents, saying that they hide behind doors when she picks up my brother. She tells me how people she’s never spoken to glare at her or make nasty comments as she passes by, such as “Get away you nasty thing.” This is something I simply cannot believe. She seems to think everyone is against her and, since we moved almost five years ago, she has had great trouble making even one friend. I think this is because of the very disorganized and nonsensical way she talks.

Once, when we had visited her brother and mother, after she had not seen them for seven years, she tried to convince the family that her mother had replaced her brother with a stand in or fake. She kept repeating, “My brother had a thin face; that was not my brother.”

She does not work, and spends a lot of time at home. I’m extremely worried about her, and I think she is getting worse each year. One minute it is evident that there is something not quite right, but after a while I kind of forget about it; and then it all comes back.

In your opinion, is there something wrong, and could she have some sort of mental illness?

Psychologist’s Reply

Although I cannot offer any diagnosis, you’ve described behavior that is consistent with the symptoms of Paranoid Personality Disorder. People who have this disorder have a persistent distrust and suspicion of others, and interpret other people’s intentions as malevolent. Specific characteristics of PPD include suspecting without good reasons that others are being deceptive, being preoccupied with unjustified doubts about the trustworthiness of friends, a reluctance to confide in others due to fear about what they will do with that information, and persistently bearing grudges.

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The exact cause of PPD is still uncertain but it seems to evolve in adulthood from a combination of biological and psychological factors. Early childhood experiences, most especially physical or emotional trauma, are thought to play a role in the development of this disorder.

Because of the distrust evident in the disorder, individual psychotherapy is the treatment of choice. Neither family nor group therapies are recommended, and if medication is an option, it must be done with great care to avoid suspicion of poisoning. Treatment is likely to focus on increasing general coping skills in addition to improving social interaction, communication, and self-esteem. However, while there is help available, you must be aware that the prognosis for someone experiencing this disorder is not good. Many people with PPD refuse to attend therapy or, if they do participate, they do not follow their treatment plan; early termination is common.

Given the difficulty of therapy (because it takes trust, something that is incredibly tough for people suffering from paranoia to give), it may be that there is little you can do to help your mother get better. This may be both sad and challenging for you to experience. Consequently, it is important that you take care of yourself. You may want to attend a therapeutic support group (live or online) or attend therapy yourself to see how you can cope with this situation.

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