October 12, 2022
Parental Mental Health
By Dr Cassie Rhodes
After a very busy few days talking all things Tooled Up at a headteachers’ conference last week, a bit of downtime over the weekend gave me the space to reflect on the symbolic importance of World Mental Health Day (which was this Monday).
You might have come across the green ribbons, stumbled across some of the numerous posts on social media, or been told how World Mental Health Day is being celebrated at your child’s school. The theme this year is ‘making mental health and wellbeing a global priority’. The organisers urge us all to ‘rekindle our efforts’ in making our post-covid world (where, globally, the pandemic seems to have exacerbated mental health difficulties), a better place. It got me thinking. Making mental health a global priority. What exactly does that mean in practice?
Over the weekend, I also stumbled across a piece written by one of my former podcast guests, Dr Lucy Foulkes, a psychologist who researches mental health and social development in adolescence and who, last year, published a fantastic book called Losing Our Minds. In the article, she acknowledges the achievements of mental health campaigns in destigmatising mental health problems and encouraging people to reach out for help. But, she also questions whether or not this is enough, dissects whether it is even always the right advice for everyone, and argues that we now need to refocus our efforts differently. Future campaigns, she posits, “need to move beyond raising awareness that mental health problems exist and towards explaining their complexity”. Simply telling us to talk about how we are feeling, Dr Foulkes states, is only effective if those around us know how to listen.
In Dr Foulkes’s view, there is now a need for awareness days and public messaging to address the “myriad factors that contribute to mental health problems” and acknowledge that the symptoms felt by many people (low mood, anxiety, paranoia or disordered eating, for example) are often an understandable response to challenges and difficulties that they have experienced in their lives. In part, she suggests channelling funds towards the numerous practical initiatives and programmes which tackle difficulties, from school bullying, to workplace stress, to loneliness.
It may surprise you to learn that parental mental illness is one of nine indicators used by the government to track disadvantages that affect children’s outcomes. As many as one in three children have a parent with mental health struggles and around 1 in 10 live with an adult with severe mental health difficulties.
We know that these children and young people can face unique challenges, frequently encounter difficulties at school and often experience disruption at home. Growing up with a parent who has poor mental health, in some cases, can be an overwhelming experience. It might feel isolating, confusing or even frightening. It can bring with it immense responsibility (many children are carers for their parent or another family member). Some children may struggle with stigma in their community and feel reluctant to share what is happening at home. Sadly, studies have shown that children in the situations described above are three times more likely to develop a mental health difficulty themselves.
For any families impacted by mental illness, this intergenerational vulnerability to mental health challenges might feel like yet another issue to worry about. But it’s important for any parent in this position to understand that, with the right interventions and understanding, your child can lead as fulfilling a life as any other child. There is effective support out there!
Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been chatting with one charity which is working hard to make the sort of impactful difference to children’s lives that Dr Foulkes has suggested is important. Our Time supports the children of parents or guardians with a mental illness with practical interventions. The charity aims to build children’s confidence and resilience by providing them with the support, knowledge and understanding that they need, both at home and in school. They offer family workshops, in-school activities and holiday clubs, and strive to create environments where children can ask questions, learn about their parent’s mental health difficulties and explore their own feelings, through games, activities and drama. They also provide opportunities for parents to connect and create a supportive social network.
Interested schools can make use of Our Time resources for lessons and assemblies. The charity also offers full training to cover the issues and experiences involved, helping teachers to recognise students who have a parent with poor mental health and giving them the confidence and tools to support these young people.
Whilst any parent with a mental illness is likely to be concerned about the effect it might have on their child, remember that there are various ways to can provide support and lessen any potential impact.
One of the best strategies is to talk openly about your condition. Children can become stressed or anxious when they don’t understand why their parent is behaving in a particular way that worries them – whether that’s sleeping a lot or becoming emotionally distant, for example. Chatting to them about the fact that you have a mental illness and how it affects you might be scary, but it’s vital.
If starting the conversation feels daunting, why not simply ask how they are feeling and what they have noticed or understand about your symptoms? You might explain that sometimes you are unwell, but that some days are much better than others. It’s important that you talk about how you manage the illness and emphasise the fact that it’s not their responsibility to make you better. You could ask them what top three questions they’d like to ask and demonstrate that there are people in their life (including you) who are prepared to help them find out the answers.
Gently inviting children to open up about their worries in this way will help to give them confidence to ask questions as they arise. Listen to what they say without dismissing them and validate their feelings. It’s also a good idea to nudge them to consider the people, things and activities that make them feel safe, included, or just a bit better when they feel down. If you are able, planning a few simple and mutually enjoyable things to do together can be hugely beneficial – this might just be watching TV together or having a hug.
Remember, having a mental illness does not mean you are a ‘bad’ parent. On the contrary, if you are caring for your children and getting support to help you through any ups and downs, then it is likely that you will be able to parent your child well. Take advantage of the different organisations that provide family support and stay in touch with family and friends, so that you all have someone to turn to, in times of need.
Our Time has created a great free resource for parents on just this subject, which we’d urge any families affected by mental illness to download. In fact, their website is an absolute treasure trove of resources for parents, children and professionals.
Are you a Tooled Up member?
Any family wanting to engage younger children in supportive conversations about illness in their home might like to use our new activity, Someone I Love is Poorly, which can be applied to either mental or physical illnesses. In it, we gently invite children to open up about worries they may have and give them confidence to ask questions. Young people might also enjoy using our Coping Menu when coming up with ideas of things that make them feel good.
You might also like to listen to our podcast on mental illness with Dr Lucy Foulkes, explore our detailed list of books for children on mental health and wellbeing or watch our recent webinar featuring Professor of Psychiatry, Tamsin Ford.
On a different note, don’t forget that we have a whole host of expert webinars coming up for you on a variety of relevant topics, all available for booking now. Join us on October 18th where we’ll be making sense of the menopause with Dr Fionnuala Barton of The Menopause Clinic, October 19th for a Q&A session with England lacrosse legend, Laura Merrifield (perfect for any young athletes), and November 14th when we will take a closer look at worrying content on TikTok with expert Dr Elly Hanson. Don’t miss out!