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