Community Roundup: What to Do When Mom or Dad Is Mentally Ill

How to cope when your parent has a mental illness

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported that 50 percent of us will suffer from mental illness in our lifetime. So, it’s no surprise that when community leader karla1842 asked members on the Families & Mental Illness board how children of mentally ill parents cope, the discussion received hundreds of comments in just a matter of days.

According to Mental Health America, people with emotional health issues are just as likely to be parents as those who don’t struggle with a mental health condition. And, in fact, the number of mentally ill people choosing to become parents is on the rise, due in part to better treatment options that help people manage their symptoms and live normal lives.

What can be particularly difficult, according to those who chimed in, is when parents go undiagnosed, and kids grow up suspecting that something is wrong:

“I grew up with a mentally ill parent, my dad, who was not diagnosed until I was an adult. I always knew something was wrong with him, but I didn't have a name for it. My childhood had way too many tense moments, and sleeping with one eye open, so to speak, was normal. I was the kid with excellent grades, working hard to get into college, doing loads of extracurriculars, said please and thank you, always neat and clean, but truthfully, I was an emotional mess and my family was a disaster,” says ladybookworm.

Marina90292 shared a similar experience. “I first realized something was severely wrong with [my mother] when I was 11, but I didn't realize she was diagnosable until a few years ago.” Like ladybookworm, she grew up quickly, assuming responsibility for her mom. “I've learned that growing up with a parent with a mental illness induces symptoms similar to those common in children whose parents have alcohol addiction -- that is, a constant sense of vigilance for any shift in mood (necessary for self-protection!) and extremely truncated childhoods. It takes a long time to learn how to function as a normal person once one escapes that kind of home,” explains Marina90292.

Unfortunately, these types of tragic stories lead others with mental illness to question their ability to be good parents:

“As a mentally ill person, I wouldn't wish a child to go through this at all,” says tacdgb. “I am glad for that reason I wasn't able to have kids. I have dissociative identity disorder, bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. I don't understand what my mind and body are going through so how could I explain it to a child? The emotional roller coaster rides I take, I would not wish on any kid.”

Momeesh’s daughter, who struggles with her mental illness, feels the same. “Are there any stories of mentally ill people who were good parents? My daughter wants to get her tubes tied because she doesn't want to be a bad parent. I told her I think at 21, it's a little early to make that decision. We're still clinging to the hope that one day we'll find the right combination of meds, and her life can return to some semblance of normal,” says momeesh.

But there are some stories of parents who have been able to successfully raise children, despite their illness. Barbiegirl1969200, who lives with bipolar disorder, has two children, ages 12 and 17. With the help of her mother, she has been able to raise her kids as a single mom. “My disorder is fairly well-controlled by medications and taking good care of myself. I still have periods of disabling depression when I am bed-ridden for days at a time. That's when my mother has to take over for me and make sure the children are looked after. It's not so much of a big deal now that they are older, but when they were smaller, they needed constant care and attention. With a strong support system, I believe those with a mental illness can be good parents.”

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, early diagnosis and treatment are key to managing mental illnesses, and keeping families together. Getting your children into therapy of their own to help understand what’s going on with mom or dad is also crucial. To find resources in your area, go to NAMI.org for local services, information and support groups tailored to kids and parents struggling with mental illness.

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