If you live in the UK you probably haven’t heard of COPMI. That’s because the UK government does not recognise children of parents with mental illness (COPMI). If you are a ‘COPMI’ and you live in Australia, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland or Iceland you will be recognised and have services to support you. In the UK, we do recognise young carers, and some of those are also COPMI, but it is estimated that there are between 175,000 and 700,000 young carers – while in the UK, COPMI are estimated at 3.4 million.
Young carers suffer from:
- Missing school and lower educational attainment
- They are more likely to have special educational problems
- They often have lowered economic living standards in the family
- They suffer higher levels of all kinds of illness themselves
- They often suffer social isolation and sometimes depression
- They often suffer bullying and stigma from their peers
Children of parents with mental illness also suffer:
- Distress and confusion from the ill parent’s ‘ill’ thinking. They often feel that they should try to agree with their ill parent, even if what the ill parent says is very strange or upsetting.
- They can feel great loss from feeling they have lost closeness with a parent they thought they knew before the illness. Sometimes they can get that closeness back but if the parent’s illness is very bad and continues for a long time they may feel like they have lost that parent.
- They also may experience stigma and bullying, which may be worse if they also feel embarrassed about their parent or even about themselves.
- They may be distressed and frightened by the side effects of their parent’s treatment, about which they may have had no warning. These include things like:
- Sleeping much of the day
- Becoming more withdrawn and detached
- Suffering muscle stiffness or strange movements
- Showing increased excitability or irritability with some drugs
So that’s a lot to cope with, on top of which they may believe and fear that they are likely to develop the same illness – especially because many people carelessly and inaccurately say things like ‘it runs in families’.
So what of relationships and with whom?
Many children of parents with a mental illness can find relationships with friends and others of their own age to be difficult, and as a result may pull away from other young people. Sometimes they feel their lives cannot be understood by others, and they may be too embarrassed by their ill parent to invite friends home, and sometimes the ill parent may discourage contact with outsiders. Also, sometimes they may be teased or bullied about their ill parent. And, even with adults, they may find it difficult to trust that they and their life will be understood. Finally, they may also be shy and want to stay at home if they felt very insecure while growing up.
Research has shown that even if there is ‘illness in a family’, good and supportive relationships can help these children to be no more vulnerable than anyone else. As highlighted by this year’s Mental Health Awareness week: good relationships are fundamental to our health and well-being.