A new study by the national mental health charity SANE Australia, reveals many parents with a mental illness raising children lack support from health professionals and school staff, and they feel ashamed to ask for help.
SANE Australia's study found that only around a third (31%) of survey respondents have told their child's school they have a mental illness and half of these found the disclosure unhelpful, leading to stigmatising by other parents and, in some cases, bullying of their child.
'It is unacceptable that in 2012, people are too embarrassed to say they have a mental illness. Not only is this unfair to the parent, it is also unfair to their child, whose health and education can suffer as a result,' says Jack Heath, CEO of SANE Australia.
'Many parents managing a mental illness are acutely aware that their illness is a recognised risk factor for their child to develop mental health problems later in life, such as depression. That's why it's so important they get support when they need it.
'It may be as simple as help to get their children to or from school, to sport practice or help with an evening meal,' Mr Heath explains.
Kylie Griffin, a single mother with two teenage daughters agrees. 'Routine is critical for children.'
'Better understanding my needs as a parent leads to better understanding the needs of my children. The flow-on effects are enormous,' she says.
Kylie moved both her daughters to another school when they was younger because of the teacher's attitude after Kylie informed the school of her own schizophrenia.
'Saying that you have a mental illness should start the discussion, not shut it down,' Kylie adds.
The survey was conducted in partnership with COPMI, the national initiative for Children of Parents with a Mental Illness. According to COPMI Director, Elizabeth Fudge, parents managing a mental illness often need additional information and support from health professionals. 'This vital support is best when it focusses on the whole family, not just the parent or the child.'
SANE Australia's Research Bulletin 16 - Parenting and mental illness: the school years found nearly half the 330 parents surveyed said they have not sought help for their mental illness on occasions because they feared losing custody of their child. An even greater proportion (64%) indicated they would resist going to hospital because of concern for their child.
The majority of the parents who participated in the survey, which asked about the experience of being a parent with a mental illness with a school-age child, were women (84%). The most common diagnosis was depression (50%) followed by bipolar disorder (23%), and just under half (45%) the participants lived in rural areas.
The SANE Australia research found that parents living with a mental illness primarily rely on family and friends for support, where available.
'Again the burden is placed on family because there are insufficient supports available in the community,' says Mr Heath. 'What's even more concerning is that more than 10% of the people we surveyed said they have no one to call on if they are ill.'
Another major concern identified in the survey was that nearly half of parents living with a mental illness do not have a care plan in place regarding their children, if they become unwell or need to go to hospital.
'This is cause for ongoing anxiety and stress, as well as leading to problems when people are in crisis,' SANE's CEO explains.
SANE Australia recommends health professionals work with parents to prepare a plan for care of children as part of routine clinical care. It is also recommended that there is better sharing of information about on-the-ground support and that schools review policies and practices to help families where a parent has a mental illness.
SANE Australia offers information, referral and a wide range of resources to assist people diagnosed with mental illness and their families.
Call the SANE Helpline on 1800 18 SANE (7263) or visit sane.org for more information.
Question: Can you share with us what mental illness you suffer from?
Kylie Griffin: I had my first episode in 1998 and I was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Just over twelve months ago I experienced another episode and my diagnoses was changed to bipolar disorder.
Question: How does that affect you on a daily basis?
Kylie Griffin: On a daily basis my disorder combined with medication means my motivation is really quiet low and I am tired most of the time. The medication has caused massive weight gain. I socialise but I don't go out very much as I should as the disorder has led to isolation.
Question: What treatments do you use?
Kylie Griffin: I take my medication however I am trying to reduce my medication at the moment by using mindfulness strategies and regular walks with friends. I use massage oils and I am aiming to use holistic treatments as well as using the medical treatment.
Question: Can you talk about the experience of being a parent with a mental illness?
Kylie Griffin: It has been really hard, all along. I was really, really sick when my two daughters were very little. When they began school we were living in public housing at the time in an older rundown home and often the girls would want to have visitors; however you'd often have a parent visit once and I could tell which parents would let their kids return, for a playdate and which you wouldn't hear from again. I always felt as if I was being sized up as there was quite a lot of stigma associated.
It was difficult for me to get my girls to and from school because I was often quiet doped out. At the time, my eldest daughter had some learning difficulties which were a challenge and when she was at the first school I had her at, she was severely bullied. The initial school didn't support me when I disclosed my disorder which was quiet horrible.
I decided to move both of my children to another school and had my eldest daughter, Emily, repeat a year. The new school was really wonderful in comparison to where we had been in the first place.
Question: What support do you receive from your community, now?
Kylie Griffin: When I was unwell, at the beginning of the year, I spent eight weeks in hospital and the school put a support plan in place. When I was well enough I went to parent/teacher interviews and I was very teary in thanking the teachers and the school. The support plan allowed me to have some peace in my mind about the girls and their schooling whilst I was in hospital, I knew the girls where okay. The school was ready for the girls if they began to wobble; they were there to catch them if something did go wrong. The girls consistently handed in their homework and did what they had to do. I'm very proud of the girls and the school community.
Question: How has SANE Australia helped you?
Kylie Griffin: I am on the board of SANE Australia and I love their independent information. The SANE Australia research is accurate and relevant especially because of the information I receive from the circles that I move in. SANE Australia helped me develop a better understanding of the issues that people face.
I've worked with SANE Australia speakers and presented different stories and information which developed pride within self and my own identity.
SANE Australia does a tremendous job and it was very important for me, that they were independent. I believe they have some of the best information out there for both young people and older whilst the information is accessible online which mean you can read it in private.
Question: Why was it important for you to join SANE Australia and help with raising awareness?
Kylie Griffin: It was important for me to join SANE Australia because what I had been through was so horrendous and if I could help one person do it easier, than we did, then I'd be so happy. My involvement is also in dedication to my two girls who have been young carers from a very early age as I have been extremely unwell. I want to give back from the experience.
Question: What advice would you give someone who had recently been diagnosed with a mental illness?
Kylie Griffin: I would say to not focus too much on the label, the label for me was a place to start to access information and read on what it meant for me. I also would tell them to realise that each person is individualised and no two people will ever have the same experience. Most importantly people do recover, I know when I was really unwell, in the first place, I didn't believe that was possible, I thought I'd be a mess forever but that's not the case. Personal responsibility and ownership of your illness empowers you to learn and grow; for me I look back at it with a sense of humour and realise it hadn't been that bad. I have learnt a lot from the experience as well as suffered.
I recommend an honest and open dialogue; even with my girls I was very honest and that helped build positive relationships around what most people see as a negative.