The importance of good relationships when you have a parent with a mental illness

It can be hard enough being a young person but having a parent with a mental illness can bring a lot of added pressures. Often this has happened without anyone realising or acknowledging how much you are caring or doing. When you don’t have anyone to talk to about what is happening at home, what is worrying you and stressing you out, these pressures can seem overwhelming.

This is made worse because it can be very difficult to talk to anyone else in an open way. In fact, it is still uncommon in general every day conversation for people to talk about mental illness, and what it is like.

Life at home may be so hard that you stop seeing your friends and having fun. Maybe you don’t want to bring friends over because your mum or dad isn’t feeling well. Or maybe you’re embarrassed by the state of your house, or by your mum or dad.

Having someone to talk to and developing good relationships are necessary and important to everyone.

So what of relationships and with whom? Some young people think that relationships mean a boyfriend or girlfriend, but relationships can be with anybody; good friends, relatives, adults you trust from school, clubs or others.

Why do they matter?  Good relationships – especially outside the immediate family can help you to think more independently, not to blame yourself, and not to fear that you have to follow your parent’s illness. It can be an uncle, aunt, a particular teacher or school nurse, family friend, cousin or any of your own friends. Another parent who is understanding and rather ‘neutral,’ or a special brother or sister can help a lot too.

Taking some time for yourself with a friend or friends and just having fun, can help you to feel more relaxed and help you to feel good about yourself and your situation at home.

The people you have good relationships with can help you to challenge stigma and stop letting you think badly of yourself. Research has shown that even if there is ‘illness in your family,’ good and supportive relationships can help you to be no more vulnerable than anyone else. So hurrah to good relationships!!

Thoughts on relationships when your parent has a mental illness

“Caring for a parent with a mental illness can have both positive and negative effects. Even though it has given me the skills of being strongly independent, it has affected my relationships with others in various ways, and you only begin to realise this once you start growing up and view things from a different perspective. Only more recently have I realised how important it is to have strong relationships with those around you.

The main relationship that has been affected is my relationship with my mum. It hurts to know that her mental illness is the reason why I will never be able to have a ‘normal’ mother-daughter relationship and there have been many times where the roles switched and felt like I was mothering her in ways a young carer would.

Relationships with extended family were affected too. They could be understanding at times, but when in desperate need of help, they too would not know how to react to the situation. My extended family never really knew what happened behind closed doors. It’s been over 14 years now – and they probably still don’t know. It affected my relationship with my younger cousins too. Being the eldest cousin from my mum’s side of the family, I felt like I was pushed away because my family circumstances were different. It didn’t help knowing that my extended family only lived a few doors away.

But I still had my dad and my brothers. Obviously, during times of major distress, we would always stick by each other and make sure everyone was safe. However, everyone deals with stress in his or her own way and the build up of stress was taken out amongst us, as there was no-one else.

Then there is the relationship you have with friends. When I was younger, I was never able to take part in social activities. I had to stay at home and look after my siblings. As the years went by, I began taking part in social events once I began sixth form and during university. But when you are a carer, you never know what is going to happen next. You are always on edge and there have been many times where I would organise events and then cancel them; or I would back out of outings because I would have a duty to go home. However stubborn I may be, I always needed to remind myself that if my own family can’t help me when I need them to, I have great friends who would pull themselves together and be mentally strong for me when I can’t cope myself. These relationships helped me get to where I am today.

When I was growing up I thought asking for help was a burden on others, but I now believe that sometimes it takes more than one person to help you get through tough times. Having said that, caring for my parent means I have experienced and learnt things, which many are still learning.

You will always have positive and negative relationships in life and everyone experiences them. But, growing up as a carer, forming relationships was always difficult due to the stigma attached to mental illness. The lack of attention to how children are affected by parental mental illness and the emotional and behavioural impacts this has, is still unheard. This has to change.”

Ambeya, young carer

“I was very reluctant to socialise with my friends due to the responsibilities I had as a carer. I would make excuses to my friends, when my mother was experiencing a relapse. I was worried that if I met up with my friends, I would disclose what was going on at home, which would make me feel vulnerable. I later discovered that engaging in my social and private leisure activities was important for my own wellbeing. Also, I learnt that I do not have to divulge personal information about what happens at home as I can always talk to my friends about other things. Nevertheless, the more I met up with my friends, the more I was able to discern who I felt more comfortable talking to about personal things. This made me feel like I was not alone.

I also found that developing a relationship with my mother was very important for my wellbeing. It could have been so easy for her illness to have created a barrier between us. I respected the fact that she did not necessarily like to talk about her health with me. I therefore talked to her about other things and did other fun activities with her. This made me see her in a different light and strengthened my relationship with her.

I cherish my relationship with my mum, family and friends, partly because it is beneficial for my own mental health.”

Chineye, young carer

“Caring for someone with a mental illness has its unforgettable effects. I experience worry while not being at home because of what may happen when I’m absent, this causes a strain on my friendships and overall I’m unreliable when it comes to schedules.

This is because mental illness is an ongoing rollercoaster of events and emotions that repels you from being in a social environment. Family members can be understanding but unwilling to cooperate, causing distress when unable to seek help.

I think patience is a skill that can never truly be mastered. However, I have become patient with others around me and understand that negative events in social constructs can be dealt with by being patient.

Having this responsibility has given me the ability to persevere during relapses and problem solve extremely emotional situations, making it feel like basic relationships always have the capability to be restored with the right time and effort from both parties.”

Angel, young carer, 18