Impressions we make are essential to how we view each other. Social awareness, some call it mindfulness, of the unsaid signals we emit are part and parcel of human interactions. But what happens when a person doesn’t understand the nuances and the secret handshake of unwritten social rules? What happens when these people become so overwhelmed by their environment that they exhibit actions, such as a meltdown, inappropriate yelling – laughing, or experience a panic attack complete with hysterics and uncontrollable crying?

It’s one thing if the helpless person involved is a child. Most of society has all sorts of qualifiers for a child that has issues and mental health concerns. But, as a person ages, society’s tolerance for such actions not only becomes mute, but in most part disappears altogether. Mental illness becomes an unspoken burden in part because it is sadly ignored,  swept away by families due to societal derision. As a person ages the stigma associated with mental illness becomes as much of a weight as the illness itself.

Society lacks basic knowledge about mental health issues. And in many ways tabloid journalism is to blame. The issues are sensationalized, especially when a violent individual commits some unspeakable crimes. (Ignoring the fact that most heinous crimes are actually committed by person considered sane.)The news will drone on and on about a subject that they know nothing about, simply making life unbearable for those already viewed to live on the fringes of society. The uneducated make conjectures, elicit ignorant opinions and promote fear instead of trying to enunciate understanding of what mental illness is and what it is not.

-Mental illness covers a wide range of illnesses. HERE Everything from ADD to autism to panic attacks to PTSD to the more severe forms of schizophrenia.

-The overwhelmingly vast majority of persons with mental illness are NOT violent. In fact they are more likely to be the victim of a violent crime than the perpetrator. HERE

-With help recovery is possible. HERE

It is important to remember that those with mental health illnesses are trying their best. What they need is understanding and acceptance.  We can talk about accommodations and we can talk about civil rights until we are  “blue in the face,” but in truth, if someone is uncomfortable around a person with a mental illness, there will never be friends, employment and a successful navigation of society. Can comfort be taught? Can compassion become part and parcel of society?

First, what society needs to understand is that meltdowns, panic attacks, “episodes” are personal to the person. It is how the effected individual is feeling at that one given moment in time. Their being overwhelmed is about how they are processing the sensory information before them. They are in that space and they cannot necessarily remove themselves from that tornado that is their mind. (And as I have said before this inability to see beyond themselves-mindblindness– becomes more problematic as a person ages. A meltdown by a 10-year-old is taken alot differently than a meltdown by a 200 pound, 6 foot tall, grown-adult-male.) HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE

Second, yes, once their “episode” is over, they are capable of understanding what has happened. They realize, once they feel better, if they have been mean, cross or had been inappropriate. “I’m sorry,” is something heartfelt. Apologies abound. They truly feel embarrassed when they have digressed in the presence of their peers and they truly feel shame.

But unfortunately if their actions have frightened someone, scared off a potential friend, or have lost them a job, sometimes there really is no going back. What is lost is lost. The question becomes how do you teach them to understand their feelings in the moment and to control themselves? How do you teach them that impressions are real and that they have consequences before these consequences are life effecting?

Lastly, so what is a parent or caregiver to do? It is trying to teach the idea  that it is the little things that become important when talking about perception. It is the little things that become important when preparing someone for the future.

Walking out of a room, class or environment when they start to feel overwhelmed is a typical self-help method. (Making sure that they leave the room before they exhibit any negative actions is important also, and part of a long process of education.) Trying to get them to understand that their “tone” in a conversation is essential to how their emotional state is perceived is important for social interactions at both school and work. Teaching them the appropriate way to horse-around (even though it seems that in a school setting typical male bonding is seen as anathema in the first place in today’s world) and what to say as a “joke” in public is a good place to start, when teaching about community acceptance. Getting them to understand the necessity of therapy and medication to their own well-being. Promoting a healthy attitude towards exercise, food and self-care can also help in their navigation of the world.

But in the end we do need to accept the fact that there is also just so much anyone person can do to accommodate the world-at-large as well. We also need to understand that no matter how hard those with mental health issues do try, there is always going to be that one person who is just totally unaccepting towards them. This person will, no matter what, never forgive the ill for who they are. They will never see beyond the disability or mental health issue. Honestly, its better to teach the effected individual how to identify these antagonistic people and to just stay away from them. You can’t please everyone and honestly it’s not even worth trying.

As I have always taught my children this primary life lesson…wherever you go in life there is always going to be one “shmendrick.” The trick in life is to NOT be the “shmendrick.” That is basically impressions in a nutshell. That is the basic goal of those with challenges.

In the meantime, May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Maybe one day there will be more give and take with society. Maybe one day the partnership will actually be 50-50. But until that time we work, we teach and we hope that the stigma of mental illness will be lifted and those that are forced onto the fringes of society will be accepted, understood and welcomed into the world inwhich they live.