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Parental mental illness

When you're a parent with a mental illness, or someone in the family is struggling with their mental health, it can make supporting your child difficult. Here is our advice on what you can do and where you can get help.

How can family mental illness affect young people?

One in four people are estimated to experience a mental health problem in the course of a year. They belong to families – they are parents, siblings, grandparents and other relatives. Many children will grow up with a main carer or close family member who has some kind of mental health difficulty.

If you or your child's co-parent has a mental health problem, it can be really tough for both you and your child. Children and young people can cope in this situation when their parent is given good help, and when they get support themselves from family, other adults and professionals when needed.

At times, however, their parent's feelings and behaviour may be worrying, upsetting or even frightening. Challenges for young people going through this can include:

  • 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
  • having to look after or care for siblings

How can I help my child?

  • Encourage your child to talk about how they feel, what their worries are and how the mental illness in the family is affecting them. You can find our tips on starting a conversation with your child here
  • Ask your child if there is anything about the situation they find particularly difficult, upsetting or scary - and think together about whether there are any changes that could be made to make things easier.
  • If you are not able to be part of a discussion with your child, try to find another trusted adult who can help them open up. This could be another family member, a family friend, their teacher, or a counsellor or GP. 
  • Give your child clear information about what their parent is experiencing. This can help them to understand what is going on and help them to know that it is not their fault.
  • Help your child to keep some routines and parts of their life going as normal. This could be things like going to school, seeing friends, having space away from the family and getting time to do activities they enjoy.
  • If you or your child's co-parent is being supported by health professionals or social workers, talk to them about what support is available for your family. Remember that if social services get involved, it does not mean they will take your child away from you. Their role is to assess the situation and offer help and support. Your child would only be taken away from the home if there was no other way to keep them safe.

Where can I find support?

Young carers support

Children of a parent with mental illness can often take on a carer role in the family. This can include doing jobs around the house, cooking meals, looking after their parent's needs and giving them emotional support, making sure their parent takes their medication and looking after younger siblings.

Young people in this situation need help to make sense of what's happening and support to look after themselves. If this is the case for your child, there are lots of local organisations that can support them. You should be able to find young carers services near you by searching online.

Your child's school

Contact your child’s school teacher or college tutor to let them know what's going on and to see what support they can offer.

Alongside counselling, schools can often provide support from the pastoral team, a member of staff who your child can chat to when they need to, mentoring, peer buddying and clubs and activities.

Depending on their age, it may be important to make sure your child feels some control over the information that’s shared about them – for example by discussing with them who they would feel comfortable for you to speak to.

Counselling and therapy

Counsellors and therapists can provide emotional support and help your child to make sense of, and find ways to cope with, what's going on in their life. Therapists working with younger children will usually work through play and arts activities such as painting, drawing and making things.

You can access counselling or therapy for your child through:

  • Your GP, who can refer them to services provided by the NHS and/or other local organisations.
  • Your child’s school, college or university – many of which offer free or subsidised counselling services.
  • Local free or subsidised counselling services, which you can find by searching online and/or using the Youth Access directory.
  • A private counsellor or therapist, who you can find using the directories listed in our guide.

Speaking to your GP

If you're worried that your child is struggling with their mental health themselves as a result of the situation, speaking to your GP is usually the first step to accessing support. Your GP can provide information and advice, signpost you to local services and discuss treatment and support options with you. Depending on your child's situation, they may refer them to a specialist for an assessment or to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS). 

You can speak to your GP with or without your child.

Mind Infoline

Provides information and signposting on mental health problems, where to get help near you, treatment options and advocacy.

Phone: 0300 123 3393

Email: [email protected]

Text: 86463

Opening times: 9am - 6pm, Monday to Friday (except for bank holidays).

Mind Legal Line

Provides information and advice on mental health law, including being detained, mental capacity, community care and discrimination and equality.

Phone: 0300 466 6463

Email: [email protected]

Opening times: 9am - 6pm, Monday to Friday (except for bank holidays).

Rethink Mental Illness

Provides practical advice and information to adults living in England who are affected by mental illness.

You can also find support groups near you using their group finder.  

Phone: 0300 5000 927

Email: [email protected]

Opening times: 9.30am - 4pm, Monday to Friday.

Bipolar UK

Provides information and a peer support service for people affected by bipolar, including friends and family. You can find a local support group here.

Scottish Association for Mental Health

Provides local support services to people affected by mental illness in Scotland. Call 0141 530 1000 to find out about services near you (open 9am - 5pm, Monday to Friday).

Our Time

Provides information, advice and support for children with a parent who has a mental illness - including family workshops in some areas of the UK.

Carers UK

Provides information, advice and support for carers. You can find services in your local area here.

Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide (SOBS)

Offers support for people over the age of 18 who have lost someone to suicide.

Phone: 0300 111 5065

Email: [email protected]

Opening times: 9am - 9pm, Monday - Friday

Nacoa

Provides information, advice and support for anyone affected by a parent’s drinking.

Phone: 0800 358 3456

Email: [email protected]

Al-Anon Family Groups

Support for anyone whose life is, or has been, affected by someone else’s drinking.

Email support is available via their online contact form.

Alateen provides specific support for teenagers affected by a relative's or friend's drinking.

Phone: 0800 0086 811

Opening times: 10am - 10pm, seven days a week

The Mix

Offers support to anyone under 25 about anything that’s troubling them.

Email support available via their online contact form.

Free 1-2-1 webchat service available.

Free short-term counselling service available.

Phone: 0808 808 4994

Opening times: 4pm - 11pm, seven days a week

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