When a parent has a mental illness

This information looks at what mental illness is, what having a parent with a mental illness might mean for you and support available. It also includes information for schools and mental health professionals to help them support young people.

Disclaimer

This is information, not advice. Please read our disclaimer.

A mental illness (also called a mental health condition or mental health problem) is a health condition that affects how someone thinks, feels and acts.

Mental illnesses include things like depression, anxiety or psychosis. They can also include eating disorders like anorexia or bulimia. Addictions, like being dependent on alcohol or illegal drugs, are also mental illnesses. Anyone can have a mental illness. According to the mental health charity Mind, 1 in 4 people experience mental health issues each year.

There are lots of young people who have a parent with a mental illness. In a typical classroom of 30 children, on average 8 children will have a parent with mental health problems.

If you have a parent with a mental illness, they might do things that other parents don’t, including:

  • taking medication, or going to therapy or doctors appointments
  • needing help doing things, like shopping or cleaning
  • spending time in hospital.

In some families, another parent or adult might support the parent who has a mental illness. But in other families, the young person will do a lot of this work themselves. If you do this, this is called being a carer. Being a carer might involve doing more than others your age, or things others don’t have to do. You can find out more about being a carer and the help you can get later in this resource.

There is no one reason why someone develops a mental illness. Sometimes there are lots of different things that have happened in someone’s life that mean they have a mental illness. These can include:

  • Life events – something very sad, scary or difficult happening, like a loved one dying or losing a job
  • Physical health – sometimes people will have physical health conditions that can cause them to develop a mental illness, or make their mental illness worse.
  • A difficult childhood – some people with mental illnesses have had very difficult childhoods where they were treated badly. Having a difficult childhood can increase the risk of developing a mental illness.
  • Alcohol and drug use – people who drink or take drugs regularly can be more likely to develop a mental illness. Some people use drugs or alcohol to feel better when they already have a mental illness, though this can make them feel worse in the long term.
  • Genetics – if someone has other people in their family with a mental illness, they may be more likely to develop a mental illness. However, it’s important to know that just because someone in your family has a mental illness, this does not mean you will get a mental illness.

Sometimes none of these things will happen, and a person will develop a mental illness anyway.

Many young people who have a parent with a mental illness will spend a lot of time caring for them. One study suggests that up to 60,000 children in the UK care for a parent with a mental illness.

Being a young carer is a huge responsibility, and you might find that it makes you feel stressed or under a lot of pressure. Having caring responsibilities might make it difficult to concentrate at school or spend time with your friends.

At the same time, being a young carer can be a positive experience. Some young carers feel that being a young carer gives them more independence, life skills and experiences of having responsibilities. Many young carers have a greater understanding of disability and illness, and have stronger ties with their families, including the people they care for.

There are lots of resources and support available to you, and your school and teachers should do their best to support you.

Support for young people who have a parent with a mental illness can have a positive impact on the young person and their family. Unfortunately, young people and young carers can be overlooked by mental health professionals when it comes to giving care to their parent.

This is rarely intentional, and is usually due to a lack of awareness of the importance young carers play in their parent’s lives and treatment. By asking for the input of a young person, and providing information to them when discussing their parent’s care, professionals may be able to understand more about:

  • what has happened so far with their parent’s illness
  • what has made it better or worse
  • what medications they are taking and treatments they are being given
  • how other areas of their life might be impacting their mental health.

Professionals should bear these things in mind, and also consider sharing important information with the young carer about their parent’s treatment, if necessary and appropriate. This might include:

  • changes in their medication
  • how and when this medication is taken
  • side effects to look out for
  • how to contact the mental health team.

Not recognising the role of a young carer can even have a negative effect on the young person’s mental health, so the importance of engaging young carers in their parent’s care cannot be overstated.

The impact caring responsibilities can have on young people is also often overlooked. In the UK, young carers are legally entitled to regular assessments to make sure they can provide care and check what effect the role is having on them.

Having a parent with a mental illness can have a huge impact on a young person, and young people who care for a parent might be at higher risk of developing emotional and mental health needs.

Young Minds, the young person’s mental health charity, say that having a parent with a mental illness can make young people feel a number of different things, including:

  • not understanding what is happening
  • worrying that the mental health problem is their fault
  • having to help a parent with medication or personal care
  • trying to predict what mood their parent is going to be in
  • being shouted at if their parent is very angry or upset
  • being scared their parent will self-harm or take their own life
  • seeing their parent self-harming, taking drugs or drinking
  • worrying about money problems if their parent is not able to work
  • missing school if they feel they need to look after their parent
  • being separated from their parent if they spend time in hospital or are not able to look after them
  • not being looked after or cared for themselves
  • being afraid of being taken into care
  • having to look after or care for siblings

It is important to bear in mind that not all young people who have a parent with a mental illness will see themselves as a carer, but may still perform caring duties and spend a lot of time caring for their parent.

Resources for teachers

Revised by the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ Child and Family Public Engagement Editorial Board (CAFPEB) and the National Collaborating Centre for Mental Health (NCCMH).

Expert author: Dr Roswitha Dharampal

This resource reflects the best possible evidence at the time of writing.

Full references for this resource are available on request.

© August 2022 Royal College of Psychiatrists