I now spend much of my working day thinking about a hidden issue, but one that has enormous implications for society, and particularly children and young people. This issue is mental illness in families: something that is almost never talked about. I often wonder why, and of course it’s because of the fear of being labelled: ‘mad, nutty, crazy…’
The fact is, we do not choose our parents and we think that our experiences are ‘normal’, whatever they might be. Parenting is challenging for all parents but those suffering from a mental illness will have even bigger challenges because of the nature of their illness and often the side effects of their medication. Mental illness hampers our ability to be the parent we want to be and affects all relationship, especially those who depend on adults to provide consistency and safety. Mental illness is a barrier to maintaining supportive relationships with extended family and partners yet we all depend on these social structures to be good parents. Just like physical illness we cannot remove the mental illness but we can find ways to help the parents be the best parents they can be.
When I visit big companies, which I do regularly, to ask for funding for the charity, I find that the stigma is still there and seemingly successful people, who have made good lives for themselves, are still keeping the secret. I find out that they have had to deal with parental mental illness, in the lift as they are showing me out, this has happened 100% of the time.
They (quietly) reveal, “my father has a bipolar disorder,” or, “I know exactly where you are coming from, my mum was severely depressed when I was growing up.” In reality, I think most of us know someone who has been affected by parental mental illness. Mostly, despite their family circumstances they have moved on with their lives but they have never had the courage to be open about it. Mental illness is one of the last remaining taboos; almost every aspect of our lives have been exposed and explored in public in recent years, except parental mental illness and its consequences. Stigma and shame will remain unless we can talk openly about parental mental illness and if we don’t deal with it, the isolation will ensure that the intergenerational cycle of family mental illness will continue.
Every one of the people who has revealed their hidden past to me has also said they wished there was a charity like ours championing their cause. They wished that they had had a place to go to meet other families just like theirs. They wished they and their parents could have talked openly about their worries and found a safe place to share the ups and downs. They wish they had had a sympathetic teacher, or relative, who took the time to notice, to whom they could turn to when their stresses got too much.
We need to create safer schools which are more compassionate and less punishing. This would help the children to trust others and thereby build more sustainable relationships in their lives. The adults who speak about their experiences tell us they wish there were schools where there was no risk of shame or their children’s friends turning away from them if they mentioned their parent’s illness. And it is this stigma that stops these children from coming forward to get help.
Early intervention is essential to enable these children to thrive. Their strong determination and courage will be an inspiration to those around them. I talk to such young people every day and I am inspired by their pride in their power to overcome such adversity.
Most employers want strong, motivated, emotionally intelligent employees but they need to play their part in creating organisational cultures that are safe and compassionate. By taking time to be more aware and informed about adult mental illness and its effects on children and work, organisations can help to dispel the shame associated with having a mental illness or living with someone who has.