Parental mental ill-health

Poor parental mental health can have a detrimental effect on the health and development of children, leading to an increased risk of mental health problems for the children 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 were receiving treatment for their condition.

It is thought about one third of all children live with a parent with a mental disorder, 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 remaining safe and feeling loved and valued. For others however the impact may be more significant, meaning that the child requires help and support to understand what is going on and reduce the impact on their development.

Definition of good mental health

A positive state of mind and body, feeling safe and able to cope, with a sense of connection with people, communities and the wider environment.

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 either for the rest of the day or possibly longer.  Stress and duress can also have an impact on how we feel and therefore 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 health issues can also be made worse by substance misuse and domestic abuse.  For some people historic events in their lives can be the cause of current mental health difficulties, for example abuse that they experienced as a child.

Impact on children


Children 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 children is to protect them from the truth and so they do not explain what is happening. This can leave the children 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 parent’s erratic behaviour

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

  • be 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
  • have or be experiencing emotional abuse

You may therefore see the following:

  • tiredness
  • worried about what is happening at home
  • poor/dirty clothing
  • underfed
  • showing signs of distress
  • showing signs of their own poor mental health
  • poor emotional responses to stressful situations
  • isolation

Organisations can help 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 – what is life like for them, what are their fears, worries and wishes?
  • Create an open environment – avoid jumping to conclusions about what their life must be like.  Not all children are affected by their parent’s mental ill health.
  • Understand what other things may be present – for example what additional stresses may there be in the family (e.g. financial, relationship, abuse, etc.).
  • Look at what adaptations you can make to support young carers.
  • Create safe places / check the child has safe relationships – where do they go to get help and support?  What about when things are difficult at home (e.g. in the late evening)?
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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”.

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