A circle of 21 people gathered recently at Westover Baptist Church in Arlington to talk about their families, but this was not the usual chitchat.

"I have been told twice he would kill me," said one man, speaking of his 30-year-old mentally ill son.

After 10 years of dealing with his son's illness at home, the father moved his son into an apartment in another part of Arlington.

The man and his wife often leave their phone off the hook so their son can't make abusive calls to them, he said.

"It's a situation where you are tied up in knots all day every day, 365 days a year," he said.

The people in the circle were part of a support group sponsored by a local chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. Headquartered in Arlington, the alliance was formed in 1979 for families needing help in dealing with mental illnesses. It also has become a forceful lobbying group for a cause that until recently had few organized advocates.

Mental health experts and families say that the mentally ill are not often violent, but the parents at the support group outlined a long list of other problems they have faced.

They spoke of the times their children have spent in jails, the pain and embarrassment of watching police take a loved one to a hospital by force, the problem of finding a landlord who will rent to a mentally ill young adult, and the near impossibility of a chronically mentally ill person keeping a job.

One couple has two schizophrenic sons, one who was recently rehospitalized after being evicted from a shelter for the homeless and another living on the streets in the District. They said they have tried five times to get one of their sons committed to a hospital for care, but have not succeeded.

When a divorced husband at the meeting said somewhat guiltily that he was not willing to "go down in flames" with his mentally ill ex-wife, another participant in the group, who is a mother of a schizophrenic child, told him he was right.

"We have grown-up kids that we feel very responsible for," she told him. "If we were spouses instead of parents, we would get lost."