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The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness

1 in 4 Australian children have a parent with a mental illness

Embargoed until 06 January 2009

Almost a quarter of Australian children are living with a parent who has a mental illness, according to new research published in the January issue of the Psychiatric Bulletin.

Of these, just over 1 % (or approximately 60,000 children) have a parent who has a severe mental illness, such as schizophrenia, manic depression or clinical depression.

The study of the prevalence of parental mental illness in Australian families was carried out by a team of researchers from Australia’s Charles Sturt University and LaTrobe University. To date, there have been few estimates of numbers of children in families with a parental mental illness in Australia. Instead, policy-makers have relied on American data, or small-scale Australian estimates.

In this study, the researchers used three methods to estimate the prevalence of parental mental illness. First, they combined figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics mental health studies with family characteristics studies to establish a population estimate.

According to this estimate, 23.3% of all children in Australia have a parent with a non-substance mental illness. A smaller proportion - 1.3% - has a parent whose mental illness is severe.

The second approach examined the records of all mental health service users in the state of Victoria between 2003 and 2004 – 38,455 people in total. This showed that 7,829 service users (20.4%) had dependent children.

The final approach used data from a community study of over 700 8- to 12-year-old children living in three Australian states. Of these, 14.4% reported having at least one parent with a mental illness.

Writing in the Psychiatric Bulletin, the study authors said: “Unfortunately, although parental mental illness does not in itself guarantee poor outcomes for children, more severe parent disability has been associated with less sensitive and competent parenting, significantly greater mental illness in offspring, insecure infant attachment, and lower quality of the mother-child relationship.

“The estimate of just under 60,000 children living with a parent with a severe mental illness in Australia is likely to be very accurate as the figures are extrapolated to the Australian context from the 14,403 children of Victorian parents with a severe mental illness. This suggests a large number of children likely to be at risk owing to their parents’ severe mental illness.”

The authors believe their new estimates provide important information to developers of psychiatric policy and programmes. They said: “This provides basic evidence to governments and mental health support agencies of a large number of children, many of whom could be considered to be living in a high-risk family environment.”

For further information, please contact:
Sarah Nevins
Press & Social Media Officer
Telephone: 020 3701 2543
Claire McLoughlin
Media & Communications Manager 
Telephone: 020 3701 2544
Out of hours contact number: 07860 755896



Maybery DJ, Reupert AE, Patrick K, Goodyear M and Crase L (2009) Prevalence of parental mental illness in Australian families, Psychiatric Bulletin, 33:22-26


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