Parental Mental Ill-health

Poor parental mental health can have a detrimental effect on the health and development of children and young people, which can lead to an increased risk of mental health problems for the children and young people themselves.

Around one-in-four adults in England will have at least one common mental health condition with women more likely to experience common conditions than men. Only around a quarter of those with a common mental health condition receive treatment for their condition.

It is thought about one third of all children and young people live with a parent with mental ill-health, around 7% of which live in lone-parent households. For some, the presence of mental ill-health may have little or no impact on the day to day parenting that they receive, with the child/young person remaining safe and feeling loved and valued. For others however, the impact may be more significant, meaning that the child/young person requires help and support to understand what is going on and reduce the impact on their health and development.

Definition of good mental health

Mental well-being is about thoughts, feelings and how people cope with the ups and downs of everyday life. Having positive well-being means that every individual realises their own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, help engage in work productively and can contribute to their community.

HM Government (2011)

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What impacts on mental health?

Just like physical health conditions, there are a number of things that can impact our mental health, and these can be as a result of specific events or can build up over time. As humans we will all have good and bad days, and you will know the impact that an unexpected event can have on how you feel for the rest of the day or longer. Stress and duress can also have an impact on how we feel and how we relate to the world around us.

Factors which can impact on mental health include relationship issues, financial worries, employment worries, housing issues, discrimination, victimisation and abuse. Mental ill-health can also be made worse by substance misuse and domestic abuse.  For some people, events that happened earlier in their lives can be the cause of current mental health difficulties, for example, abuse that they experienced as a child or young person.

Impact on children/young people


Children and young people can cope very well with upsets if they are short lived and they know what is happening, but often adults feel the best way to help them is to protect them from the truth and so they do not explain what is happening. This can leave the children and young people feeling:

  • frightened of what will happen to them or their parent/carer;
  • to blame for the situation;
  • worried that they might develop the same condition;
  • stigmatised;
  • confused by their parent’s erratic behaviour.

As a result of parental mental ill health, children may:

  • become young carers
  • have been neglected as their parents cannot look after them
  • be teased and bullied by peers
  • be experiencing periods of separation from parents who have to leave the home for treatment
  • be experiencing emotional abuse

Spotting the signs

  • Tiredness.
  • Worried about what is happening at home.
  • Poor/dirty clothing school attendance.
  • Hunger, malnourishment, neglect.
  • Distress.
  • Their own poor mental health.
  • Poor emotional responses to stressful situations.
  • Isolation, poor relationships, being bullied.
  • Use of alcohol/drugs by young person.
  • Organisations can help children/young people by understanding that poor behaviour may be due to stresses at home and a cry for help.

What you can do

  • Listen to the child/young person – what is life like for them, what are their fears, worries and wishes?
  • Help the child/young person to understand what is happening with their parent.
  • Create an open environment – avoid jumping to conclusions about what their life must be like. Not all children and young people are affected by their parent’s mental ill-health.
  • Understand what other things may be present – for example what additional stress there may be in the family (e.g. financial, relationship, abuse, etc.).
  • Look at what adaptations you can make to support young carers.
  • Check children/young people have safe relationships – in their family, with their peers and with your staff. Create the environment where it’s okay to talk even about the most difficult things. Where do they go to get help and support?  What about when things are difficult at home (e.g. in the late evening)?
  • Spot the signs and know what to do – use the checklist above, your safeguarding procedures and have the confidence to raise parental mental ill-health as a possibility.
  • Take action – and keep taking action until you know children and young people safe.
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  • I had a black dog, his name was depression

    At its worst, depression can be a frightening, debilitating condition. Millions of people around the world live with depression. Many of these individuals and their families are afraid to talk about their struggles, and don’t know where to turn for help. However, depression is largely preventable and treatable. Recognizing depression and seeking help is the first and most critical towards recovery. In collaboration with WHO to mark World Mental Health Day 2012, writer and illustrator Matthew Johnstone tells the story of overcoming the “black dog of depression”.

  • The Mental Health Foundation

    The Mental Health Foundation is a leading charity for everyone’s mental health in the UK. Their vision is for a world with good mental health for all. With prevention at the heart of what they do, they aim to find and address the sources of mental health problems so that people and communities can thrive. Their website includes a useful A-Z of types of mental health concerns. 

  • NHS 5 steps to mental wellbeing

    Outlines 5 steps you can take to improve your mental health and wellbeing. Trying these things may help people feel more positive and able to get the most out of life.

  • MIND

    Mind is a charity that offers advice and support to empower anyone experiencing a mental health problem and are working to ensure that communities across England and Wales have access to the mental health information, support and services they need.

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  • Training resources for DSLs to use in team meetings
  • Reference documents for additional information
  • Handout for staff summarising parental mental ill-health
  • Quiz to test staff understanding
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