The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has an interesting report on parents with mental illness.  It states that no comprehensive set of statistics has been collected on parents with mental illnesses.  However, the authors of the report have been able to paint a picture of the challenges mentally ill parents face.

Who Are Mentally Ill Parents?

Parents with a mental illness may not be who you expect.  One could be a successful businessman with lots of money and a busy family.  Another could be a hard working office manager who keeps it together, most of the time.  Or another could be me, a well-educated working mom with a newborn, husband, and new home.

The SAMHSA report states that about 2 to 3 million parents self-report that they have a mental illness.  However, the report seems to find few statistical resources directed towards parents with mental illness.  At best, their numbers are an educated guess.  Mental illness goes widely under-reported for all people, so it’s not just a problem with estimating how many parents are affected.

How A Parent’s Mental Illness Affects Children

A mental illness can be a big elephant in the living room.  If the family doesn’t deal with the problem directly, all sorts of unhealthy patterns can develop.  Children may make excuses, minimize problems, blame and point fingers, clean and cover up the “mess”, bend over backwards to make the parents feel better – just about everything except grow up emotionally secure.

If the mental illness is mild only lasts a short period of time, a family can make good adjustments without many lasting problems.  But prolonged denial and lack of treatment can put other family members at risk for developing a mental illness or drug addiction.  Though it is not likely that a child could directly inherit a mental illness, a child certainly can inherit various personality or physiological traits that could make them vulnerable to mental health problems.

What Mentally Ill parents Can Do

A parent with a mental illness needs to do everything possible to take good care of themselves.  This can be a tall order for a busy parent, but it is absolutely necessary for everyone well-being.  A parent may need to do many things to stay on track such as regular counseling sessions, medication, support group meetings, exercise and relaxation routines, and other things.

Since each person is unique, good self-care will mean different things for different people.  A parent with a mental illness needs to know their triggers, their most effective coping skills, and a strategy for avoiding symptom relapse.  Even with good self-care, a person may have a period of time where their mental illness comes to the forefront.  If they have good support and are committed to staying well, they can rebound again.

Most importantly, it’s on each one of us challenge our perceptions of a parent with a mental illness.  What does that really mean?  Could it happened to me someday, or someone I know?  Does that mean they are bad parent?  These are all questions we need to ask ourselves.  Chances are good that you already know a parent with a current or past mental illness.