We all need some stress in order to get us out of bed in the morning and life is full of opportunities to experience stress, from the demands of school, to friendships and sometimes the home environment. What is really difficult is when the stresses pile up and there is nowhere to hide and nobody to talk to. This is the situation of many children who have a parent with a mental illness.
Sir Michael Marmot has identified the holy trinity of stress: high demands, low control and low support. Children of parents with a mental illness are often in positions where they take on an adult role in relation to their ill parent (highly demanding) and because of the stigma they rarely disclose this to anyone (low support) and they have no control over their home situation (little decision-making power). Marmot and his team found that this combination of circumstances resulted in poor health generally. The research found that social support was a key protective factor.
In our work with schools and families, we find the experience of being able to talk about mental illness as an illness is a relief, and the support they get from being with others in the same situation offers the whole family the opportunity to relax, to open up about their fears and to find ways to parent well despite their illness. They regain some control because they can think about their situation and open up about it as a family. In this way, they can plan for the difficult times and find the support they need. Many families tell us that the KidsTime Workshop is the only place where they don’t feel judged and where they have control over their ‘treatment’. They are asked to think about what would help them rather than be told what would help, in this way they can make their own decisions with the support of the group. The children enjoy having fun and being able to relax as their parents are safe. One child told us that she did not realise at first that she was at a workshop for families with mental illness, she enjoyed the games and only later realised that they were attending a workshop because her father had a mental illness.
Our Time’s way of working with families and children is based on offering support, having fun and being able to talk about mental illness in a stigma-free environment. The drama work offers the opportunity for the children to safely think about their home situation, to ask questions through creating characters and role playing. When the mini dramas are recorded and played back to the parents there is a sense of joy and pride despite the content which is often tragic and troubled. Parents are amazed that the children know so much and worry so much.
One parent recently told us that the first workshop had such a positive impact on her children, she did not recognise them on the way home.