Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board
North Wales Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service
Parental Mental Health
What is mental illness?
Mental illness is what it says; it is an illness of the mind in which a person to some degree loses control over aspects of their thoughts and / or their feelings. It can be very mild - such as mild depression when things look much worse than they are - or very severe - for example when a person’s life is totally dominated by an illness such as schizophrenia, and they cannot live independently.
It is estimated that mental illness will affect 1 in 4 of us at some time in our lives. When a person is mentally healthy they feel good about themselves; they can do everyday things easily, like going to school or work, and enjoying their hobbies and friends. Even when things go wrong, they can usually sort it out themselves, although this may not be easy.
When someone becomes mentally ill, they may find everyday things very difficult to do and they may feel confused and upset a lot of the time. They may do things that seem normal to them, but to other people watching they may seem strange.
How many children have a parent with mental illness?
Many children will grow up with a parent who, at some point, will have some degree of mental illness. Most of these parents will have mild or short-lived illnesses, and will usually be treated by their GP.
A few children live with a parent who has a severe mental illness such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. In fact 68% of women and 57% of men with a mental illness are parents. In addition many children live with a parent who has long-term mental health problems, as well as alcohol or drug problems and personality disorders.
Why do children living with a parent with mental illness have difficulties?
Children can often cope well with all sorts of life upsets, especially if:
Parents cannot control the fact that some illness, especially mental illnesses, can last a longer time, and may come back. However some parents may try to protect their children from their illness by keeping it a secret or as ‘something’ which cannot be asked about or explained.
Although this is often done for good reasons, it is a mistake and can make it more difficult for the children to cope with or to manage their own feelings.
In these situations many children will worry that:
Even when children have all the right support and explanation, they may still feel upset, frightened, worried by, or ashamed of their parent's illness or behaviour at times.
What problems can children develop?
Some children withdraw into themselves, become anxious and find it hard to concentrate on their school work. They may find it very difficult to talk about their parent's illness or their problems especially when they have had no explanation of their illness. This may stop them from getting help. Children are often ashamed of their parent's illness and worry about becoming ill themselves. They can be preoccupied with fears of ‘catching’ the illness and some children can show signs of a similar illness or severe emotional problems.
They can have physical health problems and struggle with school and their education, especially when they live with parents in poverty, poor housing or have an unstable life.
What can I do to help?
There are some steps that can be taken to try and help avoid these problems and to make the child or young person's life easier. For example:
If you are a parent with a mental health problem, it is important that you make sure you have the right help. You can discuss your child’s needs for care and support, especially when you are unwell, with your doctor or the professional treating you. All mental health professionals involved in the care of an ill parent should ask about the needs of the children in the household, and whether any further help is required, even if the parent is not being treated in hospital.
A child may really value the chance to talk about their parent's illness, and their fears, with a professional who is familiar with these things.
It is important for parents and teachers to be aware of the possible stresses on the young person with an ill parent, and to recognise that a child's difficult behaviour may be a cry for help:
Some children may be offered therapy or counselling. A lot of children will not be very happy about this as they assume it means that they are either the ‘problem’ or that they will develop the illness. Young carers groups avoid this problem as the children are respected as helping their parent.
If the child or young person has severe emotional or behavioural problems that interfere with their life and that don't seem to be improving, more specialist help may be needed. Their GP will be able to advise about local services and to refer a young person, if necessary, to the local Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS). This service usually includes child and adolescent psychiatrists, psychologists, psychotherapists, nurses and social workers.