The biggest public health issue of our time

It’s a common misconception that parental mental illness is a niche issue. In England alone, it’s estimated that 2.9 million children and young people live with a parent who has reported symptoms of anxiety and depression – and that figure doesn’t capture the whole of the UK, nor does it include parents with other illnesses such as schizophrenia, personality disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Over the last decade, great strides have been made to raise awareness of mental health and build resilience in young people. The health and wellbeing school curriculum now includes mental health,  counselling is available at most schools in the UK, and young people are much more aware of their feelings and the effects of stress. But in contrast to this, the impact of parental mental illness has largely been ignored – so the issue remains taboo and the children are left to cope alone.

The lack of education and understanding around the issue has also left many professionals feeling unsure of how to support affected families. They fear upsetting, blaming or undermining the parents if they speak to the children. In reality, the parents from families who have joined our KidsTime Workshops have not talked of blame but of gratitude. The children live with the issue, and for them it’s a relief to find a safe space to talk about it and tackle it as a family.

While young carers can suffer from lower educational attainment, social isolation, stigma and bullying, children of parents with mental illness face additional challenges. An unwell parent’s unpredictable behaviour can cause great distress and confusion for a young person, who may feel that they should try to agree, even if what their parent says is very strange or upsetting. They often experience a sense of loss because of the unfamiliar changes in their parent’s character, and the stigma may be worse if they feel embarrassed about their parent or themselves.

In addition, the effects of medication – such as long periods of sleeping, withdrawal, increased excitability or irritability, stiffness and strange movements – are often distressing to the child who may have received no warning about this. It’s already a lot to cope with, but on top of this many young people are of the opinion that they are likely to develop the same illness.

The children of parents with mental illness are a hidden group, partly because many have become expert at concealing their problems in order to protect the ill parent and the family. So how can these children be helped to have a childhood and grow into adults that have a future?

Research confirms what young people consistently say they need:

  • An explanation of their parents’ illness and an opportunity to talk about their concerns
  • Help to understand that they are not alone
  • The ear of a neutral adult to listen and provide them with support

One young person who attended our KidsTime Workshops with her sister and father offers five reasons why learning about her father’s mental illness really helped her:

“I got to know what to expect because I was often scared of what I didn’t knowIt broke the silence and the accompanying shameIt helped me to find my voice and be recognised as a person with thoughts and needsIt helped me to be more understanding of my dad’s difficulties, be more sympathetic and feel less guilty as I thought I was somehow to blameIt meant I could explain it to others too.” 

At Our Time we have been researching this issue for the last decade and developed ways of providing simple, powerful and cost-effective support, so young people and their families do not have to suffer in silence.