Back to school: Respite, relief or reason to worry?

It’s the start of September and children are preparing to go back to school; parents are preparing them for a new school year, new teachers, new schools and the inevitable stresses and strains associated with transitions. There is of course some excitement in all this, but for families where a parent has a mental illness this time of year is more complicated. A lot depends on the support systems surrounding the family and the capacity of the school to support the children. For these children, going to school can be both a respite from the chaos at home, and stressful because they are often caring for their parent and so worry about leaving them alone during the school day.

So much depends on the school’s capacity to identify and help the affected child. Many schools have young carer groups, but very few have an awareness of children who care for a parent with mental illness. There are many reasons for this, the first being that the children themselves are reluctant to disclose their home situation for fear of triggering an intervention by social services which threatens the family. These children also often do not see themselves as carers because we don’t see mental illness in the same way as physical illness or disability and the issues they struggle with are quite specific. They are fearful of being seen as odd, crazy or any of the other names which stigmatise mental illness. They do not welcome being referred to counselling because they see this as an indication that they themselves are ill or ‘the problem’.

Schools have become more stretched in terms of resources and many of the support staff have been lost, and teachers are driven to be more focused on educational attainment and cognitive development. This has created an increased level of stress for the whole school, but for the children who have a parent with a mental illness, the combination of home stress and school stress becomes a burden which is detrimental to their wellbeing and their ability to learn. We need to see emotional development and cognitive development as interlinked, as it is obvious that a mind that is preoccupied has little room for taking in new information.

Our Time is dedicated to helping school staff have the confidence and skills to support these children and to create a safe environment where the children can feel able to disclose their situation without the fear of bullying or stigma.