About mental illness
Mental illnesses are psychological and emotional disorders that affect the way people feel, behave and manage daily activities.
Some people experience mental illness for only a short time. For example, some parents experience postnatal depression in the early weeks or months after having a baby. Likewise, anxiety or depression can sometimes happen in response to stressful life events.
But 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.
With the right treatment and support, it’s possible for many people to manage their mental illness symptoms and live a happy, healthy life.
If you’ve been experiencing negative or frightening feelings and thoughts for more than a couple of weeks and these feelings are getting in the way of your daily life, it’s a very good idea to seek some help. You could start by talking with your GP.
Mental illness and raising children
All parents navigate challenges as their children grow and develop. But mental illness might make it harder for you to navigate the challenges of family life.
Routines, family rules and boundaries help daily family life run smoothly. They also help children feel safe and secure. But if you have a mental illness, it might be harder for you to:
- stick to a regular routine or get through simple chores like shopping and cooking
- set limits for your child’s behaviour and keep to them
- balance the demands of a job with family life, especially when you get stressed or confused.
Sometimes children of parents with mental illness step in to help their families with cooking, cleaning, shopping and so on. It can be good for children to do some household chores. But if your child is taking on a lot of daily tasks, it might be a sign that your family needs more support.
Staying connected with your child
Tuning in to children’s emotions and being ready to listen and respond when children need comfort helps children feel loved and cared for. But sometimes having a mental illness can make it harder for you to connect with your child.
Also, if you have severe symptoms like psychosis or hallucinations, it can be very confusing for your child. Your child might not understand why you’re acting the way you are. Or they might blame themselves and think it’s their fault. Your child might also feel frustrated and angry with you.
If you have a mental illness, helping your child get support is a really positive step. A family member or trusted family friend might be able to help. Or your child can talk to a GP, paediatrician, teacher or school counsellor. Children over five years can call Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800.
Managing the challenges of parenting with a mental illness
Whenever you can, talking to and staying connected with your child will help them feel secure and loved. This can be as simple as a cuddle on the couch, a loving note in their lunchbox, or a family ritual like a secret handshake or nickname. Try to put aside time just for you and your child as often as you can.
Depending on your child’s age, it might also help to talk with your child about your illness. This might help your child to understand when you’re not well, know that the situation isn’t their fault and cope better. It can be scary and difficult to talk about these issues, so you might like to ask your GP or psychologist for some guidance on how to start.
It’s OK to accept help when family and friends offer. When you’re not well, you can let people know that your family needs extra support and suggest what they can do to help – for example, cooking a meal, giving your child a lift to extracurricular activities, or spending time with your child so you can have a break. People often appreciate being asked for something specific.
And if you look after yourself as best you can, you’ll be better able to care for your child and respond to them in warm and loving ways. This includes healthy eating, regular exercise, trying to rest and spending time doing things you enjoy.
Looking after yourself also means caring for your emotional wellbeing by sharing how you feel with friends or family.
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
Getting professional help and seeking support from family, friends and the 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
If you’re experiencing mental illness, you can get many different types of help and support.
The best place to start is your GP. Your GP can refer you to a range of specialist support services like psychologists, psychiatrists, counsellors, 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 thoughts 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