Thursday 12 December 2019

Mind matters: Overcoming mental health difficulties as a family

Experiencing mental health difficulties as a parent can be a challenge, but there are ways and means of overcoming it as a family.

Family walking dog
Family walking dog

Linda Daly

The stigma around mental health issues has been tackled in recent years as more people have come out to talk about their experiences. But for a long time in Ireland, and still today, there has been an attitude that people should get up and get on with it, with a lack of empathy for those who suffer from mental health difficulties.

Yet, mental health problems are extremely common. Figures from the World Health Organisation in 2001 showed that up to one in four people will experience a mental health or neurological problem in their lifetime.

The continuing rise in suicides in this country, some of which are by parents, has highlighted the fact that more needs to be done.

In mid-June, Barnardos held a conference looking at this very issue. ‘Patients. Parents. People.’ called for integrated supports and services for families experiencing mental health difficulties.

According to CEO of Barnardos Fergus Finlay, while the agency isn’t an expert in the field of mental health, in recent years it has come across more parents struggling with mental health conditions. He says that austerity and financial stress, as well as isolation in communities, has led to mental health breaking down.

Yet, despite this increasing trend, many parents will not come forward for help.

“One of the things [mental health difficulties] affects is your ability to be the parent you want to be. Now, that’s a long way from saying if your health breaks down you should lose your children. [Parents] want help, they’re looking for help, but they’re terrified that if they acknowledge that they have any kind of mental health difficulty, the first thing that will be called into question is their parenting capacity. In fact what they need is support,” he explains.

While some supports are available in Ireland, Finlay says they tend to be either aimed at individuals, based on age, or medicalised.

“The thing that tends to be forgotten is that if you have a mental health problem, and someone classifies you as a patient, you’re still a parent. You’re still a mum, you’re still a dad. You still have all the issues going on at home that you want to get in touch with and on top of.”

Barnardos is trying to raise awareness of the fact that people are much more than mere patients. “We’d like to see much more dialogue, much more inter-agency work, much more collaboration around the needs of the whole family. Families need to be included, they need to be involved.”

Finlay says children want to be part of their parents’ recovery. “They want to help, they want to support. It can be an intolerable burden to place on a child’s shoulders to say you’re responsible for your mum or dad’s well-being. But it’s an equally intolerable burden to say we’re not going to tell you what’s going on here. So we need to break down all those kinds of barriers.”

Family walking dog

For the child whose parent has depression or mental health difficulties, it can be the loneliest place in the world, says Finlay. But, he adds, it need not be. “If depression hits your household and mum or dad is really finding it very difficult…suddenly it seems as if [they] don’t love you anymore. Suddenly it seems as if you can’t talk to mum or dad. In many cases, the kids ask us ‘is it something I did, is this my fault?’.”

But how do you approach the topic of your mental health difficulty with your child? Clinical director with Aware Dr Claire Hayes says it is important for parents to talk to their children but recommends talking to another adult, whether that’s a trusted friend, partner, GP or Aware advisor, before they do so.

“Children pick up on things. In terms of honesty [having the discussion] is important and can be a really good conversation to have, but it needs preparation.

“Don’t put your child in a bubble. A parent who has depression can be a wonderful example for a child; they can show that things happen in life that can be pretty lousy but we can still choose to act in a helpful way.”

Hayes cautions against googling advice sites for tips. “There are lots of websites, with headlines such as ‘five things to say to your children’, and I don’t agree with any of them. My advice is step back from the situation and look at what you say to yourself about depression.”

While you might want to apologise to your child for being who you are, Hayes says you should instead look at the strengths you display while parenting with a mental health condition.

“Some days it seems much easier to give up, but parents should look at the positives, that they have kept going, that they have stayed strong. Be honest with your child, talk to them about the facts that it’s an illness or a condition, but don’t approach it with more shame and apologies,” she says.

Hayes suggests you explain to your child that sometimes you are too tired to go out with them or sometimes you might even sound cross but it’s not them you are cross with. She says the discussion is an opportunity to explain to your child it’s nobody’s fault, least of all their fault, and to learn as a family how to do things differently.

It’s also an opportunity to tell them they are still loved and that mental health issues can be treated.

Your child may ask if there is anything they can do to make you feel better. While you might say support from them is important, they are not responsible for making you feel better, stresses Hayes.

They may also want to know if they can get it, so explain to them that mental health difficulties or depression are like any other illness, you might get it but you might not, she advises. Because they know about it they are in a better place to deal with any issues they may encounter as they get older. By starting the conversation, you’re already arming them with the tools to stay healthy.


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