Parenting When You Have A Mental Illness Yourself

father carrying small child on shoulders

Parenting is a roller coaster of challenging responsibilities even for parents with good mental health living in ideal circumstances. But for parents with a mental illness, the challenges are even greater.

Many adults will experience a form of mental ill health during their parenting years. The Australian Bureau of Statistics reports that in 2020/2021 over two in five Australians aged 16-85 years had experienced a mental disorder at some time in their life. Mental illness may be chronic or temporary, and may include (but is not limited to):

  • Ante or post natal depression
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Obsessive compulsive disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Bipolar disorder

Juggling both parenting and mental health can be overwhelming so it is important for parents experiencing a mental illness to firstly look after themselves as well as seeking professional help and proactive support from family, friends and the community.

How does mental illness affect parenting?

A parent with mental health concerns is facing the same daily parenting challenges as any other parent while coping with the issues that their mental illness presents. The nature of their mental illness may mean they have reduced capacity or energy and so they may find the typical challenges of parenting to be overwhelming.

Parents may notice the following symptoms as a sign they need support:

  • Withdrawal from family or even their children
  • Lack of motivation
  • Low energy
  • Disorganisation
  • Emotional and physical unavailability
  • Inconsistency
  • Anger
  • Irritability
  • Despondency

It is possible to parent with a mental illness, but it is difficult to prevent any impact on the children because mental illness naturally affects relationships and interactions with others. Therefore, it is vitally important to recognise the symptoms of mental illness as early as possible and seek help. The longer the symptoms are present the more likely it is that there will be some kind of impact on their child’s emotional development, so early action is crucial. 

Support for parents with mental illness

The impact on children living with a parent who has a mental illness is naturally quite diverse and depends on many factors. The age and developmental stage of the children, the nature, duration and severity of the mental ill health, and the support structures available for both the parent and the children all come into play.

It may help to:

  1. Put yourself first. It is very hard to do if you have negative thought patterns that question your own value and self worth, but it is crucial that you prioritise your own health first. 
  • For optimal development, children need a network of healthy, supportive adults around them. Recruit help and create the ‘village’ that supports your children. This may best be done in the early stages of mental ill health.
  • Depending on the age and maturity of the children, it may be helpful to have a family discussion to develop a plan of support for the children. This will help the children understand that there are other adults they can turn to if their parents are not available to them. This discussion can also be done with third party professional support and guidance, such as during family therapy.
  • Draw on a network of healthcare professionals for treatment, support and management such as GP’s, counsellors, psychiatrists and psychologists as well as mental health organisations like Beyond Blue, Black Dog Institute and SANE.
  • Stay connected with friends, family, neighbours, peers, co-workers – anyone within your network who is supportive and understanding. Being open and honest about your mental health and asking for help when you need it gives others permission to step in and step up when you need to take time to look after yourself.

How to support your child when you have a mental illness

When you look after yourself, you are looking after your child. Self care includes prioritising choices regarding your health and wellbeing such as ensuring you get adequate sleep, eat a healthy diet, get regular exercise, and maintain positive social connections.

Engaging professional support from practitioners with a focus on the family unit is a good way to ensure you and your family receive consistent support, advice and strategies to manage any issues that might arise during periods of mental illness.

Relational Minds have a team of psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists, clinicians and mental health nurses who deliver a range of services to support families experiencing a parent with mental ill health.

By working together with the assistance of mental health professionals you can better manage your mental and emotional wellbeing and reduce the impact your symptoms might have on family members.

Get in touch today, and seek the help you need to reduce any stress or fear you may have around the impact of parenting with a mental illness.

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Relational Minds Child and Family Mental Health Clinic provides professional support services in Victoria for parents, caregivers and families struggling with the mental health and emotional wellbeing of children.

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