Blog: Supporting children of parents with a mental illness
Published: 16 Mar 2021
‘Protect Young Carers’ Futures’ is the 2021 theme of Young Carers Action Day, which falls on March 16 – and it couldn’t be more appropriate when thinking about children of parents with a mental illness.
"In many respects we have come a long way in talking about mental health in the last decade or so, but there remains a lack of openness in talking about parental mental illness." - Mandy Bell, Fellow
Without support, 70% of these children will go on to develop mental health issues themselves, potentially embedding disadvantage across generations. Given that we have good evidence as to how we can improve outcomes for these children, it is crucial that UK public policy begins to address this issue.
Children who have caring roles within a family remain hidden for many reasons. They and their families are unlikely to recognise their care-giving role; they may be unaware that there are young carer support services; they may not identify with the term ‘young carer’; or, particularly when caring for someone with a stigmatised condition, they may choose to remain silent for fear of the response from services, members of their community or their peers.
Children of parents with a mental illness face additional challenges in being identified and accessing services. Stigma plays a big role, as does failure to recognise emotional support as a caring role and a misguided belief that it is in the best interests of children to be shielded from conversations about mental illness in the family.
In the ten years since my Fellowship travels, progress in UK practice has been steady but frustratingly slow. Yet there is a strong and growing evidence base as to what is needed to improve outcomes. In his latest co-authored publication, Building Children’s Resilience in the Face of Parental Mental Illness, psychiatrist Alan Cooklin identifies three key ingredients needed by children of parents with a mental illness:
- They need to have an explanation of their parent’s behaviour and mental illness.
- They need to meet other children who have experienced parental mental illness.
- They need to have a neutral adult in their lives who can act as an advocate.
A range of other challenges result in poor provision for these young carers. In my role as Development Lead at Gloucestershire Young Carers, I often hear health and social care professionals voicing their lack of confidence in having conversations with families about mental illness. The benefits and challenges of siloed adult and child services have been well documented, and this is reflected in what the practitioners tell us. Those from children’s services frequently report feeling ill-equipped to talk about parental mental illness, while many adult mental health professionals feel unable to talk with children in the family. In respect of parental mental illness, the provision of whole family services is rare, but where it does exist the benefits are unquestionable.
Mandy (left) with two young carers at a global conference about caring for children of parents with mental Illness in Norway
At Gloucestershire Young Carers we have developed My Mind Matters, a suite of services for children and families where a parent or sibling experiences mental illness. My Mind Matters aims to ensure that children know that it’s ok to talk about mental illness, that they are not to blame and cannot catch the illness and that, whilst they can provide support at a level that does not negatively impact them, they are not responsible for the care of a parent.
My Mind Matters offers families three separate and complimentary services. Us Too is a closed, time-limited wellbeing group for the children, enabling them to connect with others, to have a safe place to talk and to learn about the Five Ways to Wellbeing. InterAct offers a whole family approach that supports communication between children and parents, and the development of understanding and coping strategies. In response to parents who told us that their mental health can distract them from having fun with their children, Child and Parent Days are also offered. These are organised events that provide learning and fun activities for groups of child-parent couples. Feedback from children and parents is routinely positive. In the words of a young carer, “I've noticed everything doesn't need to be sad, you can express your feelings and you don't have to hold onto them forever.” A parent also told us that the services had been ”brilliant in restoring my faith in my ability to parent my children”.
Reflecting on the relative simplicity of the My Mind Matters objectives, Dr Cooklin’s key ingredients and the evidenced benefits to children, families and society, it seems inconceivable that we continue to fail these families. In redressing this, I would recommend:
1. Advocating for recognition in public policy
Despite the development of high-quality services around the UK, this remains piecemeal. Our Time, a leading UK organisation in this field, is currently renewing its push to bring about change in public policy and funding frameworks. I would encourage signing their petition calling on the government to protect children of parents with a mental illness.
2. Training of multi-agency professionals
Children of parents with a mental illness need to be identified in the places that they go and by any professionals who support them and their parents. Whether working in adult or children’s services, professionals need the skills and confidence to see the family as a whole and to know how to respond.
3. Tackling stigma
Given the prevalence of mental illness in society, it is likely that each and every one of us will have experienced or know others who have experienced mental illness. Many of us who are parents will have faced the additional stresses of caring for children whilst experiencing poor mental health. In many respects we have come a long way in talking about mental health in the last decade or so, but there remains a lack of openness in talking about parental mental illness. In order to create an environment in which families feel safe to ask for help and support, we need to talk about mental illness in the family, to educate both adults and children, and to remove the stigma created by lack of understanding.
Reflecting on the challenges, the positive developments in practice, and the growing evidence base, I am hopeful that identification of and response to children of parents with a mental illness will continue to grow. Key to this is recognition in public policy. Young Carers Action Day is a great opportunity to raise the profile of these children and young people. I would ask you to consider, on this day, what can you do to protect young carers’ futures?