Making the link between parental mental illness and children’s physical health

A recent review of the effects of parental mental illness on children’s physical health by researchers at the University of Manchester and published in the British Journal of Psychiatry starts with a startling statistic:

20% of children and young people have a parent with a mental disorder

Abel KM et al Prevalence of maternal mental illness among children and adolescents in the UK between 2005 and 2017; a national retrospective cohort analysis. Lance Public Health 2019 ; e291-300

The research team reviewed over 15,000 studies and came to the conclusion that children of parents with a mental disorder have multiple health disadvantages: however, the evidence base is limited to risks for offspring following post-natal depression in mothers and there is little focus on fathers in the literature. They found that the risks are not just to the mental health of the children but this situation also affects their physical health too. I quote,

“ Little attention has been paid to a link between parental mental disorder and poorer offspring physical health, defined as diseases such as asthma or diabetes affecting somatic rather than mental health. This is important not least because poor physical health has a detrimental effect on a child’s development, with chronic ill-health affecting social functioning and academic progress. Also, health disparities in childhood often persist into adulthood, leading to lower life expectancy. Moreover, such a readily identifiable high-risk group could be a suitable target for early interventions”.

Recent reports done by ONS and Children’s Commissioner make it clear that there is a huge issue (in excess of 3 million) but it has had almost no visibility in either policy making or service planning despite being the source of much suffering and social deprivation. Why is this the case? Is it because we don’t want to talk about it? Is it because mental illness is one of the last taboos in our society? The end result is that millions of children deal with this very damaging and distressing family situation on their own, hiding the secret and taking care of the family and their ill parent.

Why is it that the youngest and most vulnerable are left to carry this burden on our behalf? The failure of adults to address the topic in families, in school and many other settings passes the stigma down to the next generation – what is hidden is shameful, and the children absorb that message from an early age. There is collective denial about this issue despite the WHO stating that it is one of the most significant health risks for children and young people’s health and well-being. This will be even more so after the pandemic has receded.

The report emphasises that “these children are likely to experience multiple deprivations and challenges, but notably little is known about them and their health needs”.

Our Time has developed expertise and interventions, based on the experience of the families themselves and the children and young people, which are low cost and easy to implement, but there is scant interest from the mental health community or the providers of services, including education and youth work. This has to change, as we run the risk of having a generation of young people who grow up with very limited opportunities for good health, good relationships and employment prospects. Those that do succeed in accessing these ‘goods’ tell us that the effects are still with them, unmentionable, but still actively affecting their relationships and their health.

During a recent conversation with a highly successful man, he told us that he decided not to have children of his own because he didn’t want to pass on his troubles to the next generation and he feared that he would not be a good parent. We must break this cycle and act now to implement preventative solutions and a whole-family approach to wellness.