Throughout the community, mental illness and mental health problems are common. Depression, anxiety, post-natal depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, panic disorders, agoraphobia are just some of the commonly diagnosed mental illnesses.
Mental illness typically responds well to treatment, much like a physical illness, but unlike physical illness, it often carries stigma.
Mental illness is often not spoken about outside the family, and consequently many parents and children feel alone in their experience of it.
According to the COPMI (Children of Parents with Mental Illness) website, “More than one million Australian children have a parent with mental illness”. Whether one or both parents may be experiencing mental illness, the whole family, including children are affected by it.
For some children the impact of mental illness in the family will be manageable, while for others the impact will be significant. There are many factors that influence just how children are affected by family mental illness, and these may include: the nature of the illness itself, parental minimal of the illness; life circumstances including difficult life events; the child’s social, physical and chronological age; personality and child temperament; social connectedness and support; and level of knowledge and understanding of the mental illness that the child has.
Some of the common challenges faced by children and young adults of parents with mental illness include:
- Social stigma attached to their parent having a mental illness. Children can feel isolated from their peers and unable to share their experience and worries.
- They may be worried about being teased or bullied, and some of these worries may be based in reality;
- Children may miss out on being with friends because they need to care for parents, leading to further isolation;
- Difficulties at school because of tiredness and stress, due to increased responsibilities in the home;
- Fear that they might become ill, like their parent.
There is known to be a small genetic component to the inheritance of mental illness, but overwhelmingly children are more likely not to develop mental illness themselves, especially with education and support;
Coping with a range of often conflicting and powerful emotions, such as anger and resentment, mixed with love and loyalty to family, can be confusing. While these responses are normal, making sense of these can be challenging;
Not understanding what the mental illness is, how it came about and what it might mean for the child and the family in the long term. Unless children have appropriate factual information to understand mental illness, they are likely to create their own ideas and outcomes;
Fear that their parent may get sick, go away, or die. When a parent has had to be admitted to hospital before, or perhaps self-harmed or attempted suicide, the fear and uncertainty created in a child may be both traumatic and frightening. Children and young adults benefit from being able to express these fears so that realistic assurances can be offered, and at times care plans can be designed and put into place;
Children need to know that they are not alone. They need age appropriate information about the mental illness that their parent is experiencing. They need to know that they did not cause their parent’s mental illness. They need to be able to talk about their feelings and thoughts with someone that they trust, knowing that they will be listened to.
Children also have the right to be children. While it may be necessary for children to take on some responsibility to support their parent, they still need time to play, be with their friends and take time for themselves.
If you are a parent or carer with mental illness or have a partner with mental illness, and have a child or family member who would like more information on this topic, or would like to make an appointment, you can contact Anna Mills by telephone or email.