Children of parents with mental illness (COPMI) are the family members that can be the most affected my parental mental health concerns. Parents are the most influential people in the lives of most children and when they are experiencing mental illness this can have a profound impact on the development of the child.
Children are generally the last to be included in any conversation about mental illness for several reasons. It is often believed that children should be protected from the information or that they are won’t understand. Additionally, the individual and family members are often struggling to understand and cope with the illness themselves and simply don’t know what to tell the child. With limited information about mental illness or how it affects their parent, children are left to draw their own conclusions about the nature of the illness, what the behavior changes mean, and wonder if they will also catch the illness.
“Of the various adults in my life, no one aside from my mother asked me about my experiences. I also never had access to my mother’s doctors, and in retrospect, I wonder if they ever asked my mother how I was doing. Adult family members seemed to be either unaware that I was impacted by my mother’s illness or were just too afraid and exhausted to consider thinking about my situation. Our focus was on mom, her illness, and hope that someday she would not be cycling through hospitals” (Jarry, 2014).
What do children and young people say they need?
Dr. Alan Cooklin of the Kidstime Foundation in the UK did a lecture for Gresham College on the subject of The Impact of Parental Mental Health on Children. In his work with children and young people, he identified several things that they say they need (Cooklin, 2011):
1.) To have a frank discussion about their parent’s illness so that they can think about the situation more objectively, and to have their questions answered honestly and openly
2.) To know that there is an adult who will act as their advocate
3.) To know that their situation is not uncommon
4.) To have access to a place or a group where they can mix with other children and young people who have had similar experiences
5.) To understand mental health problems
6.) To know that they are not responsible for the illness
7.) Help with their fear that they might ‘catch’ the illness
8.) To understand how mental health services work
9.) To know what to look out for if their parent is becoming ill
10.) To know what is normal behavior for an adult
11.) To know how to access help
12.) For their contribution to be recognized
13.) For their knowledge of their parent and his or her illness to be listened to and respected
Cooklin, A. (2011, February 2). The Impact of Parental Mental Health on Children. Retrieved from Gresham College: http://www.gresham.ac.uk/lectures-and-events/the-impact-of-parental-mental-health-on-children
Jarry, M. (2014). River of Resilience: A Daughter’s Memories of Becoming Whole. In Motherhood, Mental Illness and Recovery (p. 336). Orangeburg: Springer.