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Mental Illness Guide: Care, Support, and Education
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How can I deal with people who do not understand  mental illness?

Most people do not know what it means to have  mental illness.  Talking about these illnesses is very hard for family members.  They may not want to talk about it, even among themselves, because of their own fears about the illness.  Support from family and friends who know what to expect can help with making your relative well again.  Hopefully this understanding can be passed on to people that the family and the person with mental illness deal with every day.

Getting people to understand mental illness

Understanding  mental illness is not easy.  The public is usually not sure what  mental illness is.

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They do not understand how this mental illness affects people.

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People often make fun of things they do not understand.

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The media tend to show the mentally ill as frightening or threatening.

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There is a general belief that the symptoms of  mental illness are untreatable.

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People tend to be uncomfortable or embarrassed around people who have symptoms of mental illness.

It is important for you as a family member to be aware of the nature of the illness and how to deal with your own feelings about it.  There are things you can do to help your relative learn to fit in the community.

Dealing with embarrassing behavior

If your relative's public behavior is sometimes embarrassing to you, you can try several things.

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Make agreements about public behavior

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.

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Be direct in confronting unacceptable behavior if it occurs

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  mental illness 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.

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Understand your own feelings of embarrassment

Ask yourself why you are so embarrassed by the behavior of someone who has little or no control over how they 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 has an illness?  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.

Handling public outbursts

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

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Take immediate steps to stop or change the behavior.

“It is against the law to smoke in this restaurant.  Please put your cigarettes away.”

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Be firm, sometimes a little angry, but do not yell.

“It is not appropriate to use those words in public.  Stop talking that way at once.”

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Be polite to bystanders.

Assume that they are understanding and tolerant.  Apologize if your relative has insulted or annoyed them.  If necessary, explain the situation.  Say that your relative is not well and cannot always control him or her self.  If warranted, offer to pay for damages, clean up the mess, or correct the situation.

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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.

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Share the story with someone who you know will see its “funny” side. 

It is important for you to know how, and when, to lighten up!