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Parenting and Mental Health Conditions

Hello everyone! Today I will be talking about parenting with mental health conditions. Does a parent's mental health have a negative impact on their children? Can a parent with a mental health problem still be a good parent? What worries do children have when their parent/s suffer from a mental illness? What can parents with mental health problems do in order to help themselves and their children? I aim to answer all of these questions here today! 

Approximately one in six adults in the UK have reported experiencing a mental health problem in the last week (NSPCC). Therefore it is estimated that around two million children are living with a parent or carer who suffers from a common mental health condition. For parents with mental health conditions, it is a common worry that it will be difficult for them to cope with the responsibilities of being a parent. It is completely normal to feel this way, however with the right support and resources, it is possible for them to be great parents (Mind Charity, 2016). Having a mental health problem can put added pressure on parents, as it can make everyday tasks seem much more difficult to handle, and they often find themselves worrying whether their child will 'end up the same way as them'. 

However, living in a household with parents or carers who suffer from mental health problems does not mean that the child will experience negative consequences or abuse. In fact, most parents with mental health problems are more than capable of providing safe and loving homes for their children. 

68% of women and 57% of men with mental health problems are parents. Therefore it is not uncommon for a child to be brought up by a parent who suffers from a mental health condition (mentalhealth.org). It is stated that it is easier for children if their parent's illness is short-lived, or if they were to understand the situation better (rcpsych.ac.uk). 

One of my followers, Zoe, believes that parenting capabilities would vary depending on the severity of the mental health condition. I personally agree with this 100% as each mental health condition affects a person in different ways and each mental health problem has the capability to be severe.  

The NSPCC talks about how parents mental health problems affect children differently depending on their age and the severity of the mental health condition. For example; parents who experience maternal perinatal mental health problems are more likely to give birth prematurely to a child who is below the average birth weight. Postnatal depression can also have an effect on the bonding between parents and their children, in the long run, this can have a negative impact on the child's intellectual, emotional and social development. However, once again, this depends on the level of support and guidance the parents/carers receive during the early stages of pregnancy and parenthood in regards to their mental health condition. 

For older children and young people, living with parents who have mental health problems may affect them differently. In some cases, the children may have to care for their parents to some extent in order to help them with their illness. This could be doing household chores from a young age, looking after younger siblings, or bathing their parents (in the more severe cases). Although this may not appear to be directly impacting on the child's life, it can affect them in a negative way. For a child, having such responsibilities can limit their other opportunities, such as playing out with their friends, and socialising, forming relationships and interacting with other people of their age. It may also affect their education, causing them to fall behind in school. It can also be confusing for the child, having to act like a grown-up when at home, and acting like a child when at school. Another way in which a parent's mental health can affect young children is that it often causes them to worry about their parents/caregivers, worrying that their condition will not get better. Some children may worry that their parent's condition is their fault, causing them stress. Therefore it is important that a child is informed in the best way possible about their parent's mental health condition, what it is, how it affects them, and to some extent, why it is happening. This can help them to understand the situation that they are in and can help them when it comes to coping with their parent's illness. It is also a great way to show them that it is okay to talk about mental health and it is okay to ask questions when you are unsure about something related to mental health. 

Not all parents with mental health problems and their children will need the support of health and social care. However, it is important that those who are in need are given support that is acceptable, accessible and effective (UNOCINI). Research and government reports give evidence of why things need to change regarding parental mental health. 

  • 1/3 - 2/3 of children whose parents have a mental health illness, will experience difficulties themselves later in life. 
  • Out of 750,000 carers identified in the 2001 consensus, 29% of them (50,000) were estimated to care for a family member with mental health problems.
  • Parental mental health is a significant factor for children who enter the care system. Childcare social workers estimate that between 50-90% of their caseload consists of a parent with mental health problems, alcohol and drug misuse. 
  • There is a higher percentage of mothers than fathers who suffer from their mental health.
  • Lone parents are much more likely to develop a mental health problem than those who live in couples.

This gives reasons for more support systems to be put in place and for early intervention with families showing signs of need.

An anonymous reader came to me to talk about her experience of being a young mum with severe depression. She told me about her struggles in being a parent, how each day is a challenge to her, and the little things such as getting out of bed in the morning and getting dressed can often be so exhausting. She said it is hard to get up in the night to see to her crying baby, but she knows it is what she has to do. For months she struggled in silence until a friend of hers encouraged her to reach out for help, for both her sake and her baby's sake. She spoke to her GP, told them she was struggling. After multiple appointments, she was eventually given anti-depressants. On top of taking her medication, she reached out to The Samaritans, she said that this helped her very much, as being able to talk to someone over the phone when she was facing the tougher days was a huge comfort to her and she never felt judged for her condition. Overall, she said the bond she has with her baby is incredible and she is grateful to her GP and The Samaritans for all of their help and support. She now has the confidence to take her baby to playgroups, which encourages socialisation and the building of friendships. 

In response to our anonymous writer, I would just like to say a huge well done for recognising your issues and seeking the help that you needed. It is good that you received help early on as that would have helped you to bond with your baby and get yourself back on track. I would also like to say that The Samaritans are an amazing charity who are there 24/7 for those who are in need of advice, guidance or just a genuine chat! YOU DO NOT HAVE TO BE SUICIDAL TO RING THEM. - You can find their details at the end of this article. - Thank you for sharing your story with me! 

Judith Miles, a friend of mine and an ongoing supporter of my blog says - ' There is a stigma attached to parenting with a mental health problem(s). It is definitely a struggle as it feels as though other parents do not want you around their children. Although parents with mental health issues can do their best for their child, I believe that the stigma is a huge barrier when it comes to the child's social needs.'

In response to Judith, I have to say it is a shame that such a huge amount of stigma still surrounds mental health sufferers. You would think that other parents and adults would have more understanding and compassion, but sadly this is not always the case. Having a mental health problem should not be frowned upon by others, as you are still doing your best to bring up your child, just as they are, the only difference is that sometimes you just need a little bit of love and support to keep going! I also agree that the stigma can impact on the child's social needs as other parents may stop their children from interacting with them, or may pass down the stigma which could lead to bullying and becoming isolated in school for example. It is also then teaching children that talking is not okay and such problems should be kept hidden... which is not the right thing to be teaching children. - Thank you for taking part and opening up to me! 

Stacey, a friend and fellow blogger, said that her children have helped her through her anxiety as she knows she needs to just carry on! She believes that in certain cases, children can help to keep you strong! 

I cannot agree with this on a personal level as I do not have children, however a lot of my friends who were suffering from their mental health prior to having kids have said that their children keep them going as it gives them something to fight for every day, although some days can be harder than others and the responsibilities of parenthood can be demanding, they still keep going and when things are good they are great, and looking at their children makes them smile. - Thank you for sharing your thoughts! 

Our last story/experience comes in from another anonymous writer. This lady came to me and told me a lot about her past and her childhood and her story was heartbreaking, yet at the same time inspiring. From a young age, this lady experienced different forms of abuse. Between the ages of three and six, she was sexually abused by two other children, at this time she did not understand how wrong this was and therefore did not seek help. Her house was always full, with four children and often their friends; this made it difficult for her to stand out and at the same time made the abuse easy to hide. She also experienced her parents fighting, which would often turn physical in the sense that they would throw things at one another, before eventually splitting up and going their separate ways. This lady, along with her younger brother, went to live with their mother and her new partner. All seemed nice at first but it did not take long for things to change. Her mother's partner became increasingly controlling, putting locks on bedroom doors and not allowing them out of the house, making them feel like prisoners in their own home. He would shower with the children 'to make sure they cleaned properly' and would punish them in harsh ways for the simplest of mistakes. At the age of ten, she became very withdrawn and began acting out in school as a cry for help.
Eventually, the school involved psychologists, but the first thing they told her was that they could not keep her words confidential if they included abuse, neglect or self-harm... therefore she was too scared to open up to them about her situation. Time went on and her behaviour became increasingly naughty, resulting in her being expelled. She began to teach herself at home, and after some time she sat her GCSE's at a school she had never been too, and she received seven! She went on to get a job that she loved, saving up the pennies so she could give her mum a deposit for a house, a way for her to escape... but sadly her mum bought a house at the end of the same street she was already living on. 
Due to everything this lady had been through, she developed PTSD. This consisted of flashbacks, and being in a zombie-like state, feeling as though there was no way of connecting things together. As time went on she turned to drinking heavily. Eventually, she went to see a GP and received treatment for her mental health and was referred to a psychiatrist for assessment. On top of this she attended long-term trauma counselling for 18 months, but unfortunately, this did not work well for her. During her healing process, her young son went to stay with her mother, in order to help her get her life back on track and to make sure her son was well looked after and could avoid seeing his mum in the way that she was in at the time. This lasted for a couple of months, she had access to her son whenever she wanted/needed but decided it would be best for her to take the time she needs to heal, and save her son the confusion of her coming and going. Her son was told that his mother was unwell and he had to stay with his nan until she was better. This was the best approach for him as it took a little bit of the worry away by giving him a little bit of understanding, it was also nice for him to be able to stay with a relative who he was close with rather than being put into temporary care. After taking the time to heal and get back on her feet she began to rebuild the bond with her son. Overall, this lady said that her mental health certainly did have an impact on her parenting skills. However, she is grateful that she received the help that she needed as it gave her a chance to rebuild her relationship with her son and helped her to keep her focus on the present rather than the past. She said she would like to encourage anyone who is going through a hard time to speak to someone rather than suffering in silence, as 'you are worth so much more than that, you may not feel that way right now, but you are!' 
She also said that a lot of people fear that opening up will lead to having their children taken away... but this is an old perspective which is rather outdated and no social worker aims to take children away, they only do so under extreme circumstances if they feel the child is in danger. All cases are different so all outcomes will be different, but no matter what happens, you should always seek help. 

In response to our anonymous writer, I want to say thank you for sharing such a personal story with me and the other readers of this blog. You should be so proud of yourself for turning your life around and rebuilding your relationship with your son. I am sorry that you had to go through such traumatic events, no one should ever have to experience that. You are incredibly strong and have done so well to be where you are today! Keep fighting.

References and useful contacts:

Mind Charity - Parental mental health
NSPCC - How to help children living with parents with mental health problems
Understanding the needs of children in Northern Ireland (UNOCINI) 
MentalHealth.org - Statistics of parental mental health
Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCPSYCH) 
Barnardos - supporting children in families affected by mental health 

NHS List of mental health helplines
The Samaritans