By Raising Children Network
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In Australia, around one in five people will experience a mental illness each year. This means it’s likely that you or someone you know will have experienced some sort of mental illness or period of poor mental health at some stage in life.

If you’re parenting with a mental illness, it might sometimes be hard to be the parent you want to be. But there are many professionals and support services that can help you. You don’t have to manage your illness alone. The first step is talking to your GP.

About mental illness

Mental illnesses are psychological and emotional disorders that affect the way people feel and behave.

Mental illness includes conditions like antenatal and postnatal depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder and schizophrenia.

Some people experience mental illness for only a short time – for example, some parents experience postnatal depression in the weeks or months after having a baby. Likewise anxiety or depression can sometimes happen in response to stressful life events.

For people who have conditions like bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and chronic anxiety or depression, mental illness can be a long-term experience. These people might need lifelong treatment to manage their illness.

But for many people, mental illness isn’t a life sentence. With the right treatment and support, it’s possible to recover from mental illness and live a happy, healthy life.

If you’re experiencing feelings and thoughts that are getting in the way of your daily life and it’s been going on for more than a couple of weeks, it’s a very good idea to seek some help. You could start by talking with your GP.

Mental illness and parenting

Having a mental illness doesn’t make you a bad parent. As a parent, you’re doing the best you can for your children. But sometimes mental illness might make it hard to be the parent you want to be.

Day-to-day activities
Having a mental illness can make it hard for you to carry out daily care activities for your children. Sticking to a regular routine or getting through the simplest chores, like shopping and cooking, can sometimes seem impossible. It might also be hard to set limits and boundaries for children’s behaviour.

Holding down a job is often difficult, and balancing a job with family life can be a real challenge, especially when you get stressed or confused.

If you’re not getting enough family and community support, your children might be doing things like the cooking, cleaning and shopping.

Staying connected with your child 
Mental illness can make it hard for people to tune in to children’s emotional needs or be emotionally available when children need support or comfort.

And some mental illnesses can have severe symptoms like psychosis or hallucinations. This is where you might see or hear things that aren’t really there, or think that people or things are ‘out to get you’.

If this happens to you, it can be very confusing for your child, and he might not understand why you’re acting the way you are. Your child might blame himself and think it’s his fault. He might also feel frustrated and angry with you.

Because I get so low in energy, self-care is important. I have to make sure I don’t do too much and just spend time on my own and take time out.
– Shona, mother of two

Managing the challenges of parenting with a mental illness

Whenever you can, talking to and staying connected with your child will help her feel secure and loved. This can be as simple as a cuddle on the couch or leaving a note in her lunchbox for school. Try to put aside time just for you and your child as often as you can.

Depending on the age of your child, it might also help to talk with him about your illness. This might help him to cope better, understand when you’re not well, and know that the situation isn’t his fault. It can be scary and difficult to talk with your child about these issues, so you might like to speak to your GP or psychologist for some guidance on how to start.

Looking after yourself, getting professional help and seeking support from family, friends and community are the most important things you can do to manage the challenges of parenting with a mental illness. Help is available, and you don’t have to manage on your own.

Getting help for mental illness

There are many different types of help and support services available if you’re experiencing mental illness.

The best place to start is your GP. The GP can refer you to a range of specialist support services like psychologists, psychiatrists, family therapists, rehabilitation services or community health services.

There are also many mental health organisations across Australia that offer great resources and can put you in touch with appropriate services:

  • Beyond Blue: information and support to deal with depression, anxiety and related disorders
  • COPMI – Parents: resources for parents and families living with mental illness
  • Head to Health: a central access point for Australian digital mental health resources
  • SANE: information about living with a mental illness.

If you ever feel like you can’t go on or have thought of harming yourself or anyone else, call Lifeline on 131 114.

There is hope. I know I’ll never be cured but with the support I’m getting from services and friends and family, I have the tools to make my life worthwhile, and a good future for the kids.
– Shona, mother of two
  • Last updated or reviewed 16-10-2017
  • Acknowledgements This article was reviewed in collaboration with Associate Professor Cathy McMahon, Department of Psychology, Macquarie University.