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Understanding and Supporting Someone with Mental Illness - advice from multiple perspectives

Updated on February 18, 2013

It recently occurred to me that I am in the unique position of being a student, supporter, and sufferer of mental illness. I do not pretend to be an expert on the topic.

What I present is based on four years of college study, countless hours of self-study, and 30+ years of living with mental illness of my own and in my family.

It is my hope to lend some advice and understanding to those who have never experienced mental illness and are now confronted with it, or those who are still trying to come to terms with it after far too long.

How do you know your loved-one is mentally ill?

Odds are if you are asking yourself this, your friend or spouse or whoever you are concerned about is more than a little quirky. Whether or not they want to tell you this, or even have acknowledged it themselves, is a very personal thing.

I am very open about my issues after far too many years of denial and faking health. Not everyone is the same. Mental illness carries a great deal of stigma, even the "popular ones" like ADD and Depression with all their new ads for the latest medications. For this reason there can be great deal of denial and secrecy. They might not want anyone to know "what they have". Or they might not be ready to seek treatment and diagnosis. Respect that. They will tell you when they are ready.

More important than "what they have" is "how they are". Something has bothered you about them. That is why you are reading this. Perhaps they are doing things harmful to themselves, friends, or family. Perhaps they seem unusually unhappy, or overly happy to the point of it being disturbing.

I would not recommend flat out asking them "Are you depressed?" or "Are you bipolar?". As stated earlier, they might not want to tell you or they might not even know. Instead, express your concerns to them. Do this at a time when they are stable, or at least not in the throws of rage or mania or a particularly unfocused ADD moment. You want them to listen.

Be as non-confrontational and supportive as possible. Make it about them and your concern for them. Telling your friend "You can really be a psychotic bitch for no reason. What's the deal?" Is not the best approach. Perhaps something like, "You seemed to get really mad over that the other day. Was it really that big of a deal? Is everything ok?" If they want to share, then it is time to listen. If they blow you off, let it go, give it some time, and try again.

If you are still concerned and getting nowhere it is time to consult another friend, family member, or professional.

Educate Yourself at YOUR Level

If you are fortunate enough to have a name to go with your loved-one's behavior, it can help you to learn a little more about it. Many advice columns recommend education to sufferers and supporters alike. I agree. But I don't think a lot of them do a very good job of telling how to get that education. Many will refer to things like the National Institute of Mental Health. A reputable resource, if you can understand it. They will list symptoms that can be attributed to anyone, or one's that you might not understand. You might know what it is to be irritable, but you have no idea what that feels like to a bipolar person. You can look up the definition of hypersensitivity, but you will never begin know what that feels like until you hear it from someone who has felt it.

I was a psychology minor in college and have studied these diseases. I have also experienced most of these symptoms at one time or another. Even I didn't fully grasp many of the symptoms of bipolar and ADD listed on these types of sites. They are simply too academic to be of use to the average reader. I was in complete denial that I was "one of those people" or that I had "that symptom".

It really hit home when I started reading blogs, articles, and newsletters. These provide more than a list of words and dry descriptions. These include the subtleties and details that make it real. They are also written in plain terms.

If you have been researching and getting no closer to understanding than someone trying to teach them-self calculus, try some of the links that I have provided along with this article. As you do your research, remember that everyone is different: different symptoms, different treatments, different outcomes. Use the education as a guide, not a bible. Again, more important than "what they have" is "how they are".

Don't neglect another powerful resource. Your loved one. If they are open about their condition they might be able to help you to understand it. Use the same cautions here are mentioned above. You do not want to ask your friend to explain her medications to you in the throws of an episode of bipolar depression. Odds are she will tell you they are a useless pile of crap. When she is in that place, you need to just be there to support her. Save the lesson for another day.

Help, Support, and Understand Them - Do Not Try to Fix Them

So many people confuse helping with fixing or curing. You cannot fix or cure someone with a mental illness anymore than you can cure an alcoholic or a diabetic. Nothing you can do is going to make them magically normal. If it were possible to be cured, don't you think they and there doctors would have jumped all over that by now?

Many times, the most that can be done is management through medications and/or behavior modification like avoiding triggers that aggravate symptoms. Some people experience one period of depression and make it through the other side to lead a perfectly "normal" life. It happens. Unfortunately, there are many people that will be haunted by symptoms of their illness for the rest of their life. This does not mean that there is nothing you can do.

There is a world of things you can do to help you loved-one live a more normal life. And really, that's all most sufferers want. Some degree of normalcy.

A Few Things You Can Do

Believe Them and Try to Understand

Just because they don't seem bipolar or don't fit your idea of someone with ADD does not mean that they don't suffer from it. Remember what I said before. Mental illness does still carry a stigma. Don't believe me? Try having one. So why would someone tell you they have one if they don't? Maybe you think they are doing it for attention? Well if they are, newsflash, attention seeeking like that means something is wrong and they need help.

Besides not denying their illness, do not deny their symptoms or treatments. Don't respond to them telling you about a symptom by pointing out that everyone does that or everyone feels that way. It is most likely they don't. Even if they do feel "like other people", it is obviously causing your loved one a serious problem. Do not try to get them to convince themself that they are fine when they are not. They want to be supported, not belittled.

Just because you don't agree with their treatment plan doesn't mean that it isn't working. You do not know how many times I have heard from my mother that I should stop taking my antidepressants. She doesn't think I need them. I get the sense that she doesn't believe in them. She continues this even after admitting how much better I was after I started them. It hurts that she denies my progress. It hurt me tremendously when my boyfriend flat out denied that I needed to take half a day one Sunday to prepare myself for the work week (being sure I have clothes and food for lunches and dinner) or else I would fall apart. He simply said that it is not possible and people don't do that. Trust me there are other things I would like to do with my time. If one more person tells me I should lose weight and I will feel better I might scream.

Me on an average day. DO I LOOK SICK TO YOU??
Me on an average day. DO I LOOK SICK TO YOU?? | Source

As much as you want to make light of a situation or tell them that they are exaggerating, don't. Because they aren't. Even if they really are being irrational, it makes perfect sense to them at that moment.

Take Bipolar disorder as an example. In the throws of bipolar depression it seems like the world is closing in, everything is horrible and wrong, and things are never going to get better. That is completely untrue. Things aren't much different than they were yesterday and they always gets better. But that is not how they see it. Don't agree with their flawed logic. But don't tell them they are acting crazy and stupid and make light of it. Certainly don't tell them to snap out if it! If you can help them to lift their spirits then do it. But if you can't, simply be there for them. Make sure they feel supported and stay safe until they make it through. The same goes for for a period of mania. When your friend is in the best mood in years and feels like they can do anything, you might not want to waste your time calling them crazy and pointing out all of their shortcomings and reasons that they will fail. It won't work. They truly think that they are making sense. Gently try to get them to use some rational logic, if you can, and keep them from doing anything harmful. After its over you can tell them what a nut job they were being. They will most likely agree. When they are having a fit of rage over the smallest thing, do not yell and argue or shout for them to calm down. Its just going to make it worse. Believe that they at that moment are feeling anger so intense that they can barely keep it together. Why over something so small? They don't know any better than you do. Stay calm and rational. If there is immediate danger to yourself or another do not be afraid to call the police. If they say they want to hurt you, at that moment they might mean it. The more you learn about their illness, their stressors, what helps them and what hurts them, the better you will be at understanding and the better you will become at helping and supporting. This will come with time. Or again, you can ask them when the time is right.

Support Them

Sometimes someone to listen is all the support your loved one needs. Its called venting. It's therapeutic. Thoughts that swirl around with no outlet can add to anxiety and depression. If they want to talk, listen. If you truly cannot, either because of the subject matter or for whatever reason, don't just tell them to shut up and go away. Do not criticise them for whining. Explain yourself. Maybe even suggest someone that they can talk to instead. Think of the last time you had great news that you wanted to share. Now imagine you try to share it and the person doesn't care and doesn't listen. Not a good feeling, right? Don't do that to your friend.

Support their goals and successes. Setting any sort of goal is a big deal for someone with bipolar disorder, ADD, depression, etc. The unpredictable nature of the illness makes any sort of planning difficult. So when they come to you exited to be working towards something you do without any effort at all, don't laugh at them. Don't make them feel inadequate or childish.

Encourage them. Be genuinely happy that they are moving forward and let them know. It will mean the world to them. The smallest achievement can be the biggest deal to someone with mental illness. It took me two years of therapy to learn how to keep my room clean and to understand what a positive impact it has on my life. I believe this is something most people learn in childhood. Well, I am proud of my clean room like it is one of my greatest accomplishments. So when your friend or spouse comes to you with their latest achievement, congratulate them. Do it sincerely. And encourage them to keep it up. They will need it. Set backs can be common and they will need help to get back on track. I said encourage. Do not push, do not nag, do not berate. All of these are incredibly destructive to someone with a mental illness. Nothing is going to crush their spirits faster than you griping about them slipping up, again.

Be patient. There are going to be setbacks. Don't make them permanent by adding negative energy. They are trying. It might not seem like it to you, but it feels like it to them. If they don't seem to be getting anywhere, you can point out the issues, objectively and without yelling or belittling. Point out how much better they felt when they were on track. Then help them get back on track by asking how you can help. It is about support and guidance. Not being a Drill Sergeant. Unless of course, and I will repeat, they are doing something seriously harmful to themself or others.

Take Care of YOURSELF

This might be the most often ignored yet most important piece of advice. Take care of yourself! You are going to be no good to anyone else otherwise. Do not feel like you have to exhaust yourself or sacrifice everything to help your loved-one. That is not your job. You should support them because you want to and you should help them because you can. If you do choose to offer help and support, only do what you can.

If you need a break, take one. Explain it to them. Do not blame them or make them feel guilty. Be very clear that you still love and support them and you are not abandoning them. And know that they appreciate everything you do for them. Even if they don't say it. Even as they are yelling and screaming at you in a fit of rage, or giving you the guilt trip of a lifetime in a bought of depression. Remember that it has nothing to do with you. It is the illness. It doesn't make the behavior ok, but it might help you to understand and to weather that storm.

If it is too much for you, get help. For both of you. Encourage them to seek therapy or to join a support group. If they are in denial and refuse to seek help, do not feel like it all falls on you.

Do not let caring for them mean not caring for you. They do not want to be a burden on you. Seeing you suffer is only going to make them worse. There are support groups for caregivers that you can go to if you have trouble coping. You doing well is going to contribute positive energy to the whole situation and will help them in the long run. And that is the goal after all.


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    • DanaTeresa profile image

      Dana Strang 4 years ago from Ohio

      yucadeb - Thank you for the feedback, and the great book recommendation! So amazing of you to be at your husband's side. I a, certain it is not easy. I wish the best for you both.

    • yucadeb profile image

      yucadeb 4 years ago

      Great Blog. My husband suffers from Bi-polar disorder. I just found a great book. I could relate to the story well.

      Thanks for your blog

    • DanaTeresa profile image

      Dana Strang 5 years ago from Ohio

      AudraLeigh - thank you so much for reading, and for taking the time to leave this comment.... one of the things i hate the most about mental health resources are that they are so impersonal. things make so much more sense when you put them into context.... i am hoping to get better at writing this osrt of articel so that i can help some people the way that i have been helped.

    • profile image

      AudraLeigh 5 years ago

      I think you did good here. I like that this was not just another summary of mental health. Your experiences and emotions brought you to write an excellent piece! Thank you for writing it :)

    • DanaTeresa profile image

      Dana Strang 5 years ago from Ohio

      Rolly - Wow! What a comment. It is always nice to know that my efforts are noticed and appreciated. I always write from the heart. Everything I write from silly poems to things like this has a part of me in it. I don't know any other way to do it. Now the thing is to get better at it..... "loved and resoected" I don't know what to say! That is so very kind of you to say. I just try to be myself, and supportive. I am so lucky to be meeting great folks like you that are helping me grow.

      Thank you so very much for sharing this. Besides writingthis out of the need to do a ittle "venting" it would be nice if it could reach somebody that could be helped by it.

      HUGS!!! :)

    • DanaTeresa profile image

      Dana Strang 5 years ago from Ohio

      rasta1 - you are exactly right. i thinka lot of people get frustrated and it makes them anxious or even angry. that just makes the whole interaction worse. anything is best done with a calm demeanor.

    • DanaTeresa profile image

      Dana Strang 5 years ago from Ohio

      midget38 - Yes. Undestanding and support from friends and family does so much more than criticism and unsolicited advice. The times I do the best and make the most progress are when I am supported. Criticism set me back so far. I really hope more people will start to understand that.

    • DanaTeresa profile image

      Dana Strang 5 years ago from Ohio

      schoolgirlforreal - I see you have some experience with the things I described. It is a tough place to be and when people aren't supportive it just makes it tougher..... My doc wanted me to try Lithium an dI refused. He actually understood my argument. I am on Tegretol instead. Not sure it is still working. ugh.

      thank you so much for givinng this a read.

      Wishing you good health

    • DanaTeresa profile image

      Dana Strang 5 years ago from Ohio

      ImKarn23 - I really like this part of your comment "they can't pretend to understand - but - they can still be understanding". I don't know what some of these people expect from us. They think we jaut arent't tryng. I would love to lose 50lbs, get a good job, not cry myself to sleep or want to run over people with my shopping cart. Anyhoo...

      Youare correct. My diagnosis IS long in coming. A lot is up in the air. I was very late in getting help. Should have done it about 10 years sooner. I am not good at asking for help. And I have this horrible instinct to act like I am ok. It took me a good 2 years before I cried in my therapists office. I still try not too. My poor doctors.

      Thanks for appreicating my openness. Goodness knows there are those that don't. They think this is the sort of thing that shoud be hidden away. Well that is not me. This stuff being hidden for too long is what makes life so tough for folks like you and me,

      You always have the nicest things to say about me. Thanks hun. You know I think you are amazing and inspiring. You really do get me. That is so refreshing!

      Thanks for sharing this... hugs.

    • rasta1 profile image

      Marvin Parke 5 years ago from Jamaica

      Being non-confrontational is very important. A humble demeanor will reduce the stress of any situation.

    • Rolly A Chabot profile image

      Rolly A Chabot 5 years ago from Alberta Canada

      Hi Dana... What an amazing hub you have put together. This has been a journey for you and it is so awesome that you are sharing this with us. You and I chatted one evening several months ago about writing. I suggested one of the most important aspects of writing is to write from the heart and know what you are writing about. You have done so here my friend.

      Dana you have grown as a writer and I speak for many when I tell you that you are dearly loved and respected here on Hub Pages and Facebook. Use this new found gift you have, you have a powerful voice... I have Shared, Twitted and Pinned this one...

      Many Hugs and Blessings from Canada

    • midget38 profile image

      Michelle Liew 5 years ago from Singapore

      I think that any person who suffers from a mental illness just asks for a little empathy, not sympathy. For someone to take the time to learn about what it is that constitutes the situation he or she faces and look at it with more understanding. Well said, Dana.

    • schoolgirlforreal profile image

      schoolgirlforreal 5 years ago

      I reread this as per your request on FB, and I like your approach of asking things with kindness; as well as knowing some people may not be aware of their ilness nor accept it-yet..

      I understand it's hard for some to admit things, but I really wish my ex would have told me about his "problems" because it would have really helped me understand him better---wait! I was so involved in my own bipolar I wouldn't have been able to cope anyways. Thank God I'm off the numbing Lithium. Good insightful and helpful hub, Dana.

    • ImKarn23 profile image

      Karen Silverman 5 years ago

      hi, glad i got a chance to read this! Thanks to tammyswallow - i think she's who 'shared' it?

      anyway..i hear you! loud and clear! it's sooo difficult for others to understand...

      as we've discussed i suffer from anxiety issues - and yet - there are those certain few who just tell me: 'Wellllll, just don't be"...LOL..

      wellll...okie, dokie - any idzzz on HOW, exactly...sigh..

      it is what it is - and they can't pretend to understand - but - they can still be understanding..

      i love how you understand yourself and are so open about...everything! I sense that your diagnosis was long and hard in coming - and that you had trouble...communicating the signs and symptoms..

      i want you to know one thing - from me to you - i believe you are a teeny bit too hard on yourself, my dear friend! i believe you are AMAZING - an open, insightful, honest person - and a kind hearted soul..

      All the rest is just...window dressing, character - and personality..

      i love what and who you are!

      up and sharing onxx

    • DanaTeresa profile image

      Dana Strang 5 years ago from Ohio

      IntegrityYes - Thanks for the vote!

    • profile image

      IntegrityYes 5 years ago

      Way to go,Dana! I voted up.

    • schoolgirlforreal profile image

      schoolgirlforreal 5 years ago

      Or should I have said, not a good med. Whatever. :)

    • schoolgirlforreal profile image

      schoolgirlforreal 5 years ago

      I agree, the best accounts are from the people who've expereinced it. Now that I'm recovering, I see people who I felt like I used to be; and this was totally related to being OVER MEDICATED.

      Hopefully, we, who are doing better, can advocate for others. :) ;)

    • DanaTeresa profile image

      Dana Strang 5 years ago from Ohio

      AnnaCia- Thank you so much for your comment. I knew what I wanted to say but I was not really sure how to say it. I get frustrated when I read resources and tehy give the same generic advise, and when I hear people make the same misguided remarks. The best resources I have found are first person accounts. So I thought I would offer mine in hopes that it would help someone. Thank you for the encouragement.

      Good for you for be an advocate for so many who need one! Wishing you all the best and looking forward to reading your hubs.

    • AnnaCia profile image

      AnnaCia 5 years ago

      Hi DanaTeresa: Thank you very much for the hub. It is very open, simple and informative. We need more of them. I wrote about my experience with mental conditions and the processes I have gone thru in order to cope better and learn to own my illness. Some aspects I have learned, and I think all individuals with mental conditions or illnesses, are to acknowledge that others are not responsible for; that I need to talk to others about my illness when needed; and that others do not have to understand what I am going thru. On the other hand, I make sure to be an advocate for all of us who carry mental illnesses.

      Very nice hub, DanaTeresa…keep writing.

    • DanaTeresa profile image

      Dana Strang 6 years ago from Ohio

      schoolgirlforreal - thanks for understanding. soemtimes all we need is to know there are people that "get us".... I am so happy for your successes. great for you! I wish you well. You have given me much needed hope and encouragement. Take care!

    • schoolgirlforreal profile image

      schoolgirlforreal 6 years ago

      I totally understand about the doing things that hurt simply because they don't understand.

      I've been limiting my contact w/ my family for lots of reasons thou and I'm growing/getting alot healthier.

      My social life is booming! I also just got a contract to publish my book "Invisible Illness"! Good things come in threes or fours, so keep up the good work!

    • DanaTeresa profile image

      Dana Strang 6 years ago from Ohio

      laadhy - Thank you! The need to write this stemmed from my experieinces trying to help others and then frommyself just wanting people to more. Even some of my closest friends havent a clue what I go through and though they love me they can say and do the most hurtfulk things simply becuase they don't understand.

      Thanks for reading. With each new reader I hope thatmy message travels a little farther.

    • laadhy profile image

      laadhy 6 years ago from Maldives- The Paradise on Earth

      DanaTeresa thank you for droping a lines of fantastic and informative hub.This hub is so interesting.

    • DanaTeresa profile image

      Dana Strang 6 years ago from Ohio

      Thank you for letting me know. I just now went through and divided it up into smaller paragraphs and took out some words here and there. To make it easier for those with shorter attention spans.

      Thanks again for taking the time to comment again. I really do appreciate the input.

    • schoolgirlforreal profile image

      schoolgirlforreal 6 years ago

      I had no trouble reading it!

    • DanaTeresa profile image

      Dana Strang 6 years ago from Ohio

      schoolgirl - thanks for the revisit. when i am done woth my edits this week i hope it will be a bit more reader friendly.

    • schoolgirlforreal profile image

      schoolgirlforreal 6 years ago

      Looking at this again, and glad you are sharing, see you around!

    • DanaTeresa profile image

      Dana Strang 6 years ago from Ohio

      EHQ - Thanks for reading. Even more so, thank you for taking the time to leave comment. I wonder sometimes when I write these if people think I am just talking out of my a** or if you can tell that I really do know what I am talking about.

      I am having one of those days when I feel like I have been run over by a truck. I care a lot about this topic and you have given me a boost of confidence to make some edits and see if I can really turn it into something.

      Thanks again.

      See you around the hubs.

    • profile image

      ExoticHippieQueen 6 years ago

      Well written article, Dana. You have an excellent perspective that allows you to give credible advice.

    • DanaTeresa profile image

      Dana Strang 6 years ago from Ohio

      Cynthia - Never be afraid to offer construcive criticism (easier said than done. I know. I am afraid to do it sometimes too). You did it in the perfect way: pointed out what I did right, and a gentle suggestion of how to make it better. It feels great to get all the warm fuzzy comments, but as you pointed out the only way to really get better is to get some good solid advice.

      I did a quick look over. Now I remember when I writing this I thought maybe the sections seemed a bit long. I am glad you verified that. This weekend will be time for edits. For now it is back to bed. Early day tomorrow.

      Take care.

    • techygran profile image

      Cynthia 6 years ago from Vancouver Island, Canada

      Dana, I have to say that your comments on the comments are superb! I am so relieved that you were looking for some constructive comments because it was a bit of a nudge for me to do that and not feel frightened that you might be hurt. I recognize that I need to push myself to do more detailed evaluations of people's writing and not just lard on the praise (which is wonderful, of course, but for writers who want to grow the constructive criticism can be useful, as you point out). All the best, Cynthia p.s., I also write long gangly sentences so that often by the time you reach the end you have to re-read from the start to see what the sentence was actually about lol).

    • DanaTeresa profile image

      Dana Strang 6 years ago from Ohio

      Techygran - Thank you for reading. And for the votes! This is a topic I feel very strongly about.

      And thanks a million for the advice! I will try some edits. You have pointed out one of my biggest writing hang ups. I still remember my high school writing tutor teaching me how to chop up run on sentences and too long paragraphs. Time to resurrect that advice.... You must have crawled into my brain this afternoon when I was thinking: I love all of the nice comments, but it would be nice to get more constructive criticism too.... Thanks again See you around the hubs.

    • techygran profile image

      Cynthia 6 years ago from Vancouver Island, Canada

      Very comprehensive and well-integrated hub, Dana-- very helpful to get the three perspectives that you provide. I appreciate all of your content but am wondering if it would be possible to break up the paragraphs into smaller segments-- for those of us who are given to overwhelm it is easier to manage smaller chunks of information.

      Voted up, useful and interesting!

    • DanaTeresa profile image

      Dana Strang 6 years ago from Ohio

      schoolgirlforreal - Thanks for reading. Two of the reasons I worte this were that I get so frustrated by all the articles that tell people to educate themselves, and then give them resources that clearly will not help them! And recently a long time friend told me that she did not know how to help me. And it made me sad for her.

      You seem like you are a very understanding and intelligent person. If peer counseling is of interest to you and you think you can do it, you should give it a shot. There are so many out there who would benefit from it.

      See you around the hubs!

    • schoolgirlforreal profile image

      schoolgirlforreal 6 years ago


      I understand. And I agree, that's one of the reasons why I've written dozens of mental health hubs or blogs, about my own experience. It has helped many who experience it, and many who have loved ones who do, and they say "Wow thanks, I never understood it, and I wish he got help, he still wont" things like that.

      I agree texts, are too complex for most people and even studying to be a mental health worker, experience is the best teacher (this is why peer counselors are in great demand now which is wonderful.)

      I have been told I would be a terrific peer counselor or specialist, I have tremendous empathy.

      but I have met some counselors who have had the interest since a young age and are not condescending in the least way, but are in fact the kindest, most sincere, and well adapted to their jobs kind of people. perhaps not all too common but a gem to find..

      Keep up your work. Great to have this kind of info out there.

    • DanaTeresa profile image

      Dana Strang 6 years ago from Ohio

      Bill - Thanks for dropping by. And for commenting. I always take your words to heart. It feels good to be finally developing a voice. Now I just have to find the time and energy to write more. Darn full time job!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 6 years ago from Olympia, WA

      This was interesting and informative! I have several friends dealing with being bipolar so I have a little background at least. This is well-written, Dana! Keep doing your thing and the followers will come.

    • DanaTeresa profile image

      Dana Strang 6 years ago from Ohio

      Logaically5150 - Thanks for the positive feedback. I think a lot of people familiar with the disorder forget how confusing it can be for those who are not. If I can help even a few people I will be thrilled.

    • Logically5150 profile image

      Logically5150 6 years ago

      Dana, This is a great blog! I too deal with mental illness in the form of bipolar manic depressive disorder and professionally and personally I can say you've hit the nail on the head! Nicely done, there is a lot of solid advice here that hopefully people will take to heart and put into practice. Keep up the great work!


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