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Mental Illness Guide: Care, Support, and Education
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What should I do when I get embarrassed by the things my relative does when we are in public?

You may get embarrassed when your relative says or does certain things.

Your relative may be in public, at a movie or in a grocery store, and behave in a way you consider embarrassing, to you or to your relative.  The person with  mental illness may talk to someone who is not there, be aggressive toward others, or say things that should not be said.  Some may even create a scene. He or she may walk down the street shouting, or sit on the lawn naked, for example.

Some people with  mental illness may shave their heads and wear mis-matched, ill-fitting clothes, such as a polka dot shirt with plaid pants.  He or she may also walk or move in unusual ways that draw attention to themselves.

How should you react when these things happen?  Below are some examples of things that might happen, and some ways that you might respond.

Examples of bizarre behavior


Your relative may talk back to voices that are not there.  Remember that these beliefs and hallucinations are very real to the person with  mental illness at the time.


Your relative might act out an imagined, or false, belief such as, “I am the King of Belgium and you are my subjects.”


Your relative might react to visual hallucinations, such as seeing pictures on the wall come to life, or seeing people that no one else can see.

These examples of bizarre behavior are part of the illness and should be expected from time to time.  It is not easy, but there are ways to deal with it.

Dealing with bizarre behavior

If the person with  mental illness’s exhibits behavior in public that is sometimes embarrassing to you, you can try several things.


Decide what behavior you can let “roll off your back,” and what behavior you simply will not stand.  This requires compromise, but such a compromise may achieve fairness to both you and your relative.  For example, you could decide not to be embarrassed by mis-matched clothes, but make an agreement that your relative will talk to his voices in a whisper rather than shouting.


Before more incidents happen, make an agreement with your relative about what things should and should not happen in public.  Make agreements based on past things that have happened.  Coming to an agreement about behavior is sometimes a lot easier than you might think.


If something does happen, let your relative know this behavior is not allowed.  Many agree that the direct approach can sometimes work well.  Just saying, “Stop that,” or, “Knock it off,” or, “That is not acceptable,” can sometimes be enough to stop the behavior.  Be firm, but do not yell.  You have to accept that a person with schizophrenia is not usually aware of acting in an unacceptable manner, so a simple statement from you will serve the purpose.  For example: “Please do not smoke in here, Mrs. Jones suffers from asthma,” or “We agreed that you can only smoke in your room or outside.”

Remember that some behaviors will take longer than others to correct.  Much patience is needed.  Keep trying.  It will get better.


Ask yourself why you are so embarrassed by the behavior of someone who has little or no control over how  he or she are behaving.

Sometimes nothing you do will work, and embarrassing behavior will take place on the spur of the moment.  This is when you need to think about your own attitude.  Why are you allowing yourself to be embarrassed by someone who you know is ill?  The answer, of course, as with all embarrassing behavior, is that we assume that everyone is looking at us.   We do not want people to think there is something wrong with us.   When we allow our feelings about ourselves to suffer because of someone else’s behavior, we can no longer deal calmly with that person’s behavior.

You may find that once you have worked through this problem with your own feelings, you will be better at helping the person with  mental illness, without taking blame for embarrassing behavior that might happen.

Dealing with public outbursts

Here are some suggestions for dealing with your relative’s sudden or unexpected actions:

  1. Take immediate steps to stop or change the behavior.  “It is against the law to smoke in this restaurant.  Please put your cigarettes away.”   Do not yell.

  2. Be firm but never abusive with your relative.  “It is not appropriate to use those words in public.  Stop talking that way at once.”

  3. Be polite to bystanders.  Assume that they are understanding and tolerant.  Apologize if your relative has insulted or annoyed them.

  4. If necessary, apologize and explain the situation.  Say that your relative is not well and cannot always control themselves.

  5. If warranted, offer to pay for damages, clean up the mess, or correct the situation.  Briefly explain your relative’s condition. 

  6. Keep your sense of humor.  Try to view the embarrassing event as an outsider might see it.  You may realize that it is not quite as bad as you first thought.

  7. Share the story with someone you know who will see its “funny” side.  It is important for you to know how, and when, to lighten up!

  8. Share embarrassing and difficult incidents with members of a family support .  They have been there and can relate and understand.