When a parent is sick

Giving voices to children whose parents suffer from a persistent mental illness

A year ago, 14-year-old Abby came home from school one day, and her mother – diagnosed with schizophrenia – poured petrol on herself and her daughter, lighting them both on fire.

Abby spent eleven weeks in the hospital; 45 per cent of her body was burnt. Although she has undergone several operations, her physical recovery is not complete yet, and it seems her psychological state may also be seriously impaired. Although this is an extreme representation of a family with parental mental illness, many voices of these children often go unheard.

On October 7, the McGill School of Social Work hosted a presentation that addressed this topic. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, one in ten children under the age of 12 in Canada live with a parent with a mental illness. Only about 25 per cent of these children are aware of their parents’ conditions. Some parents are not even aware of their own illnesses, and others simply decide not to inform their children in order to protect them, or out of fear of the potential stigma.

Over 450 million people in the world suffer from mental illness, most forms of which are short-lived and treatable. However, in cases of chronic illness, like depression or bipolar disorder, parents often have difficulty communicating and forming bonds with their children, and these children may be neglected. Statistically, a depressed mother is less likely to display empathy, make eye contact with, or touch her children.

Another difficulty arises when the majority of attention is directed away from the child and towards the disorder, such as when these adults require regular medical check-ups.

These children, who observe their peers’ seemingly healthier familial relationships, may view their own as “abnormal.” They may feel different, and even powerless, as they believe nothing can be done to escape the situation or better their parents’ condition. Some children may become angry at their parents for being ill, and others feel guilty for not being able to help.

In extreme cases, children may even be told that the illness is their fault. In one case presented during the talk, the 12-year-old Jocelyn came home one day to a note from her mother saying that she was throwing herself under a train because Jocelyn had been a bad girl. In these situations, if children are told multiple times that they are the reason for the parent’s abnormal behavior, the emerging guilt is often quite damaging. This can significantly lower a child’s self-esteem and confidence.

When children are constantly surrounded by the instability brought on by severe, long-term mental illness they may also be more likely to develop mental illnesses themselves. This may be a result of nature and nurture, both of which affect each stage of a child’s development.

However, the difficult situation can be ameliorated when mentally healthy adults are present to help children cope with their parent’s illness. The first step to minimizing the effects of parental illness on a child is to help the child understand that the parent is unwell and that it is not his or her fault.