Mental illness in a parent or carer

A wide range of mental ill health can affect parents and their families. Mental ill health in a parent or carer does not necessarily have an adverse impact on a child’s development. Just as there is a range in severity of illness, so there is a range of potential impact on families. The consequent likelihood of harm being suffered by a child will range from a minimal effect to significant one.

Overview

A wide range of mental ill health can affect parents and their families. This includes depression and anxiety, and psychotic illnesses such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Depression and anxiety are common. At any one time one in six adults in Great Britain may be affected. Psychotic disorders are much less common with about one in two hundred individuals being affected.

Mental illness may also be associated with alcohol or drug use, personality disorder and significant physical illness. Approximately 30% of adults with mental ill health have dependent children, mothers being more at risk than fathers.

Appropriate treatment and support usually means that mental illness can be managed effectively and as a result parents are able to care successfully for their children. Mental ill health in a parent or carer does not necessarily have an adverse impact on a child’s development. Just as there is a range in severity of illness, so there is a range of potential impact on families. The consequent likelihood of harm being suffered by a child will range from a minimal effect to significant one.

It is essential to assess the implications of parental ill health for each child in the family. This would include assessment of the impact on the family members of the social, physical ill heath or substance use difficulties that a parent with mental illness may also be experiencing. After assessment appropriate additional support should be provided where needed.

Overall children with mothers who have mental ill health are five times more likely to have mental health problems themselves. Parental mental illness, particularly in the mother, is also associated with poor birth outcomes, increased risk of sudden infant death, increased mortality in offspring– probably through complex interaction of sociological, biological and risk behaviours such as smoking. This research indicates that these vulnerable families need additional support and help.

Common mental health issues

Depression

  • Feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness 
  • Poor motivation 
  • Feelings of exhaustion and poor sleeps patterns 
  • Poor self esteem 
  • Poor appetite 

Anxiety

  • Worrying – sometimes with unrealistic expectations or in regard to issues that may, on the face it, appear “trivial” 
  • Poor sleep patterns 
  • Physical symptoms – e.g. feeling shaky or increased heart rate

Panic attacks

  • Sudden bursts of terror Physical symptoms – e.g. feeling shaky, increased heart rate, chest pains, feeling faint
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorders

Obsessive thoughts

  • Repetition of action or thought e.g. washing hands repeatedly or counting objects

Phobias

  • Fears that may disrupt normally functioning e.g. fear of leaving the house 
  • Common examples of phobia are of spiders, dogs, insects, heights, enclosed spaces and flying

Bipolar disorder

  • Periods of extreme highs and hyperactivity 
  • Periods of depression

Schizophrenia

  • Inability to perform daily tasks 
  • Hallucinations 
  • Hearing voices 
  • Confusion

Impact on children

Babies up to 1 year old

  • Inability of the parent to respond and nurture 
  • Lack of warmth 
  • Negative responses 
  • Poor attachment 
  • Inconsistency in parenting

Young children

  • Behavioural problems 
  • Anxiety and withdrawal 
  • Conduct disorder 
  • Aggression towards family and/or peers Anxiety and withdrawal

Adolescents

  • Increased risk of developing a mental health problem 
  • Behavioural problems 
  • Conduct disorder 
  • Depression 
  • Difficulties at school 
  • Difficulty with friendships. (It should be noted that friends can act as confidants and offer support. However, in some circumstances the young person may find it difficult or embarrassing to consult with friends or may have limitations in leisure hours as they may have become responsible for practical tasks at home or emotional support of the parent or siblings).

People with mental health issues can experience changes/difficulties with the way they think, feel or behave. Parental mental ill health can, in some circumstances, lead to an inability to look after the child’s physical and emotional needs. Children who have mothers with mental health issues are five times more likely to have mental health problems themselves. Parental mental ill health holds specific risks for children of particular age groups.

It is important not to assume that all young people will have problems just because they grow up living with a parent who has mental ill health. Research has shown that the adverse effects on children and young people are less likely when parental disorders are mild, last only a short time, are not associated with family disharmony and do not result in the family breaking up. Children may also be protected from harm when the other parent or a family member can respond to the child’s needs, and the child or young person has the support of friends and other caring adults.

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