“It’s not you, it’s my bipolar” — parents with mental illness urged to be open with their children

The stigma of mental illness starts at home — it’s time we broke the cycle

Mental health experts are today calling for a new approach to how families deal with mental illness.

Instead of hiding conditions such as depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder, parents are being urged to speak openly and honestly with their children.

The findings from a new data snapshot report,[i] carried out by mental health charity Our Time, shows that most parents do not speak to their children about their mental illness, yet when they do there is a sense of freedom and relief for the whole family.

And it’s not just families who keep quiet, but professionals too.

Dympna Cunnane, Our Time’s CEO, explains: “Most professionals are reluctant to talk to the children and this avoidance and silence perpetuates the stigma. Each generation passes on the shame and the myths surrounding mental illness to the next generation, which in turn perpetuates the cycle. The experience of the silence around mental illness in the family is a source of confusion and fear in the children which often leaves them feeling like they are the problem and the parents thinking that they are bad parents.”

Yet, evidence [ii]shows children benefit from having a clear explanation of mental illness, and that resilience improves the more they can understand the source of the trauma.

In a series of testimonials, families supported through Our Time’s community-based, multifamily workshops (KidsTime Workshops[iii]) describe how open dialogue has made a real difference.

A mother with bipolar disorder, explains: “People say, ‘Don’t tell the kids,’ but they should know [about my mental illness] because if mummy’s not feeling well they might take it personally. When mummy’s sad, crying or upset, they now know: ‘No, it’s not because of you, that’s just my thing. With bipolar, I can be happy at one point, sad the next, then ranting and raving. My kids now know it’s not anything they’ve done. KidsTime Workshops teach them not to take it personally – that this is a condition. At first, they used to think it was their fault.”

“The children attending Our Time’s programmes have universally described the relief of straightforward explanations which respect what the child has seen, thought and experienced,” says Our Time’s founder, family psychiatrist, Dr Alan Cooklin.

Dr Cooklin warns that without open discussion, children may fantasise that they are responsible for their parent’s illness, causing increased stress and anxiety.

He offers the following tips to promote dialogue within families:

  • Find out about your illness and share what you’ve learned with your child
  • Explain that mental illness has many causes, and reassure your child that their experience will be different from yours
  • Tell your child that he/she is not responsible for your illness or your emotional state
  • Agree on a code or some simple way of letting your child know when you need to withdraw for a bit
  • Don’t overload the child with too many details of your emotional life — saying you ‘need to withdraw when you are overwhelmed by feelings’ may be enough
  • During better periods show interest and curiosity in your child. Explain that while you will not be emotionally available during your bad times, you will be during good times.


Editor’s notes:

Email – media@ourtime.org.uk


[i] KidsTime Workshops Data Snapshot 2019

[ii] Cooklin, 2018. Promoting children’s resilience to parental mental illness: engaging the child’s thinking, BJPsych Advances

[iii] https://ourtime.org.uk/ourwork/kidstime-workshops/

[iv] Children’s Commissioner’s annual study of childhood vulnerability in England, 2018

[v] ONS Report 2019

[vi] Evaluation Report of KidsTime Workshops, Anna Freud Centre, (2010-2011), KidsTime Workshop Manual