Things we should Remember when we Meet a Mentally Challenged Person

I spent the last ten years working at a mental health facility. During that time I met many people with varying levels of mental retardation and other personality disorders. What many people don’t realize is that mentally challenged people come in all sizes, shapes and personalities.

Some are borderline, meaning chances are good that you would pass them in a grocery store and never realize they had a disability. They may work in the community, live in their own apartment, and be able to provide for all their personal needs.

At the other end of the spectrum are those who are severe, and sometimes their other disorders are so severe that they may be aggressive or just plain psychotic. People at this end of the spectrum tend to make the general public uncomfortable. What we all should keep in mind though, is that many times we make them feel uncomfortable as well.

So what exactly should you do when meeting a mentally challenged person? Keep these few things in mind:

1. You don’t have to yell. Very few mentally challenged people have hearing problems. For some unexplainable reason, we tend to think that by speaking louder, people with mental challenges will understand us better. Shouting is not only not necessary, but it can also elicit anxiety or anger in the person you’re meeting.

2. Respect personal space. Offer your hand for them to shake, but don’t immediately grab them into a bear hug. Specifically if the person you meet has a disorder such as autism, they are uncomfortable with being touched. If they don’t shake your hand, don’t push them to do so, and don’t be offended by it. This may simply be a custom with which they are unfamiliar.

3. Don’t talk down to them. They are not children, and though they may not be capable of operating a remote, this does not mean that they don’t have the same interests as other adults. Dating, voting, and participating in social activities are encouraged in mental facilities, and chances are good that the person you meet has a better social life than you do!

4. Ask if they have other disorders that may specifically affect their personality. It’s very rare that mentally challenged people will not have some other diagnosis as well. Bipolar Disorder, Schizophrenia, Autism, are all common secondary diagnoses that affect how a mentally challenged person relates to people. If a care attendant is with them, just ask if there are other disorders you need to be aware of. This may help you understand their reactions better and how to deal with them.

5. Patience, patience, patience. This is the hardest thing for most of us to remember. We live in a fast-paced world, and we often want to finish other people’s sentences when they are taking too long. The biggest goal of working with a mentally challenged person is teaching him to perform tasks for himself, and successfully doing this is very rewarding for him. Don’t try to finish his sentences for him, or assist him in a physical activity unless he asks for your help. Being able to complete the task is very important to him. Also understand that he may move slowly, due to physical impairments or medication. It may be difficult, but try to keep the same pace that he does. You may be surprised at all the things you’ve never noticed before because you were moving through life too fast.