Parents with mental health problems

Living with a parent who has mental health problems may leave you feeling confused, angry or helpless. Your home life and your personal life may be affected, and you could even find yourself having to care for your parents wellbeing.

daughter and dad laugh at something on her phone

How to help them when they're less able to help you.

Understanding your parent’s behaviour

If your parent is acting irrationally or behaving oddly, it may cause you to feel frightened and unsure about what to do. “My Dad had a mental breakdown and was suicidal,” says Carl. “My Mum said things about him that scared me, like he was volatile and dangerous. I was confused and frightened by what was going on and I felt I had no one to turn to for reassurance or support. Dad’s unpredictable mood swings put us all on edge.”

According to Jane Harris, campaign manager for Rethink, this lack of understanding of where to go for help is common. “Young people don’t necessarily know they can go to a GP to get help,” she says.

How will it affect you?

  • Stigma: The negative view some people have of mental illness can be hard to cope with. “If your parent is shunned by society it can start to impact on you, making you feel isolated,” explains Jane.
  • Lack of social life: Not being able to invite friends home or have the time to spend with them can be hard to deal with. “I told no one,” says Carl. “I just withdrew into myself. There was no real support network in my family so my siblings and I felt isolated and alone.”
  • Education and employment: “You may have to stay up late to look after your parents,” explains young carers development worker Danni Manzi from the Princess Royal Trust for Carers. “Sleep may be disturbed which affects concentration and this has an impact on your education. Even if you do manage to get work, you may have to take time off to support your parent, and juggling caring and working can be impossible.”
  • Health implications: If you are one of the 250, 663 young carers aged 16-24 in England and Wales(according to the Princess Royal Trust for Carers) who’ve become responsible for looking after their parent, (29% of which are looking after a parent with a mental health problem), this can have a negative effect on your health. Research by the Loughborough University Research Group found young carers experienced: physical health problems such as weight loss or ulcers; 40% experienced mental health problems such as depression, stress and low self-esteem; 70% experienced long-term psychological effects. Out of 61 young carers from Edinburgh Young Carers Project asked about their problems and worries, over one-third said they had self-harmed and 36% had thought of suicide.
  • Burden of responsibility: “It can be a massive strain on young people”, says Katrin Eichhorn from SANE. “They probably witness a lot of life changes”, agrees Danni, “such as bereavement, family break-up, losing an income stream or housing and seeing the effect of the illness on the person they love.”

The hereditary issue

The worry that your parent’s mental illness may be genetic may be at the forefront of your mind. “I sometimes think about being my Father’s son and having his genes,” says Carl. “Thinking about my genetic inheritance leaves me cold and uneasy, especially as I have had my own struggles with depression and anxiety.”

“Around 50% of schizophrenia is genetic”, says Jane, “and there’s varying degrees with other mental illnesses.” If you’re concerned, make an appointment to have a chat with your GP. You can also take measures to help lessen your susceptibility to developing a mental illness by:

Getting help

Finding the right support can be crucial. For Carl, the lack of help he experienced had a very detrimental effect. “There was no one to go to for moral support. I felt I was completely alone. The thought that I might end up going into care was almost welcome. At a time when my family needed to be close and mutually supportive we were all isolated and afraid, which made the whole experience worse.”

The lack of support for Carl’s father aggravated the situation. “Everybody let him down. There was precious little help from the family and the system couldn’t really accommodate him. During his stay in hospital, he was loaded with medication and his brain was bombarded with electric shocks, then he was returned to society with no real hope of recovery.”

“If the young person is the carer, they need to realise they have rights,” advises Jane. “The Carers and Disabled Children Act of 2000 extended the right for people of 16 and 17 to ask their local authority for an assessment of their needs as a carer and of the services and support available to them. It’s also really important to go out and look for help and try to keep a life for yourself outside of caring.”

“It’s important to have someone to talk to,” says Carl. “A friend who’ll simply listen can be a godsend. It’s good to find out what’s happening to your parent. There’s lots of support and information out there for those who live with someone who has mental health problems.”

Next Steps

  • SANE offers support and information to people affected by mental illness. Call their helpline on 0300 304 7000, open 4:30pm - 10:30pm every day.
  • Chat about this subject on our Discussion Boards.
  • Need help but confused where to go locally? Download our StepFinder iPhone app to find local support services quickly.

By Marcella Carnevale

Updated on 29-Sep-2015

Photo by asife