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How young people are affected by parental mental illness

In this abridged article, Dr Alan Cooklin highlights the challenges facing children affected by the issue of parental mental illness.

This article is adapted from the paper: ‘Living upside down’: being a young carer of a parent with mental illness’, (Cooklin, 2010).

What is it like to have a mum or dad with a mental illness such as depression or schizophrenia? In this article, we highlight the challenges faced by children affected by parental mental illness and explore the impact this has on their lives.

What we know

Parental mental illness is one of the most toxic sources of stress in young people. (Children’s Commissioner 2019). Millions of children worldwide are affected by it. Despite this, these children often go unnoticed. Typically, they hide their home circumstances to avoid stigmatisation.

They also rarely get the support that they need because they fall between the remit of child and adult mental health services.

Children as carers

You may recognise these children as carers because they adopt caring roles within their families, taking on responsibilities that are not age-appropriate. However, they tend not to think of themselves as carers. They think of themselves as surviving, as lonely and isolated.

What is it like for these children?

For a young person, their unwell parent’s unpredictable behaviour can cause great torment and confusion. They may feel they should agree with their mum or dad, even if what they say is strange or upsetting.

The effects of medication on parents

The effects of medication on their parents — such as long periods of sleeping, withdrawal, irritability, or strange movements — can cause distress to the child who has received no warning about this. Children in this situation, often experience a sense of loss or rejection because of the unfamiliar changes in their parent’s character.

Sometimes children, particularly younger ones, report experiencing the same symptoms as their parents, such as delusions. They over-identify with their ill mum or dad and find it hard to separate their own thinking from that of their parent’s.

A life full of contradictions

These children’s lives are full of contradictions. At school they are children, but at home, they act like grown-ups. They may also get treated differently depending on whether their parent is currently well or ill.

Many of these children experience depression, low self-esteem and a fatalistic acceptance of their situation. Others may engage in violent or self-destructive behaviour.

How children are impacted by parental mental illness

All aspects of a child’s development can be negatively affected by parental mental illness. Children, unless well supported, may struggle with cognitive and language development. Their educational achievements may suffer, as well as their social, emotional and behavioural development (Falcov 1998).

A greater risk of bullying

These children are at greater risk of bullying, a lower standard of living, and financial hardship. They may also experience neglect and/or violence within their homes (Dunn 1993). Without help, they are at greater risk of developing mental health issues themselves (Rubovits 1996).

We know this group struggle. In a study of children of parents with schizophrenia, 73% reported serious distress resulting from their parent’s illness (Stuart 1998). With help, children can sometimes overcome the effects of adversity. It is therefore important that these children are noticed and supported (Cooklin 2010).

Learning points:
  • Children affected by parental mental illness are a highly vulnerable group
  • Typically, they keep their family situation hidden
  • They often experience social isolation, stigma and bullying
  • Their parent’s illness can negatively impact all aspects of their lives
  • These children may go unnoticed and unsupported
  • Children can sometimes overcome adversity with appropriate support

References

  1. Cooklin, A. (2010). ‘Living upside down’: being a young carer of a parent with mental illness. Advances in psychiatric treatment, 16(2), 141-146.
  2. Dunn B (1993) Growing up with a psychotic mother. A retrospective study. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 63: 177–89.
  3. Falcov A (1998) Crossing Bridges. Training Resources for Working with Mentally Ill Parents and their Children. Reader for Managers, Practitioners and Trainers. Pavilion Publishing.
  4. Rubovits P (1996) Project CHILD. An Intervention Programme for Psychotic Mothers and their Young Children. In Parental Psychiatric Disorder. Distressed Parents and their Families (eds M Göpfert, J Webster, M V Seeman): pp 161–9. Cambridge University Press.
  5. Stuart A (1998) The Willow Scheme. In National Handbook of Young Carer’s Projects (eds J Aldridge, S Becker). Young Carer’s Association.
  6. The UK Children’s Commissioner Vulnerability Report (2019)
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How To Support Young People Living with Parental Mental Illness

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