Mental Illness

By Vanessa Rasmussen, © 2004, All rights reserved.

Mental illness in a parent adversely affects the stability of the family. Mental illness can cause mild to severe instability in children and consequently lead to an inability to cope with life's everyday demands and routines. If either or both of the child's parents are mentally ill, there are higher chances for the child to suffer from mental illness as well. However, this is not always the case. Mental illness occurs as a result of the combination of genetic inheritance, and a range of relationship factors within the family and psychosocial adversities.

The risks to children include psychopathic behavior, suicidal tendencies, medical problems and behavioral problems. The child might believe that he/she is an outcast and feels isolated. Also parent or parents suffering from serious mental disorders such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, anxiety disorder, etc. often hear voices and get paranoid. It is frightening for a child to live with a parent who exhibits extreme and often violent behavior. Children might feel guilty that whatever is happening to their parent is because of them. Often in a rage, a parent might say something that the child takes to heart and feels guilty about it. In a nutshell, children are often 'parenting' their own parent and taking the responsibility of managing the house and younger siblings.

Parents who suffer from a severe and serious mental health problem may not be able to care for their children or protect them in the way they would like. Mental illness impairs their parenting capacity and they are not able to communicate properly with their children. Families in which a parent has mental illness are at increased risk of experiencing poverty, housing problems, family disruption and disorganization, marital conflict, reduction of social and leisure activities, disruption of children's schooling and isolation as a result of the parent's mental illness. Often parents are afraid of support services and welfare organizations because they fear that their children will be taken away from them.

Children with a parent or both parents having a mental illness need all the support and love of other family members, school, society, government and welfare organizations. The following steps can be taken to reduce the risk to such children:

  • Realize that the parent has a mental problem and the children are in no way responsible for that.
  • Psychiatric help for the parent and counseling for the child can be provided.
  • Schools should provide more mental health consultation to the children and encourage peer support and counseling.
  • Encouraging participation in extra curricular activities and hobby classes.
  • Tell the children that they can always ask for help and ensure that there is a good reliable person available at short notice to care for the children if their parent is unwell.
  • Teach the children strategies to keep themselves safe, including crisis or emergency medical contact numbers to use.
  • In certain situations children may need protection from maltreatment, and it is vital to ensure communication, co-ordination and collaboration within and between all services and agencies involved with the family where a child is at risk.

Copyright 2001, 2004. All rights reserved. Any reproduction of this article in whole or in part without written or verbal permission is strictly prohibited. For information about reprinting this article, contact the copyright owner: Vanessa Rasmussen, Ph.D, Starting a Day Care Center,