My parent has a mental illness

Whether you think your parent has a mental health condition or has been diagnosed with a mental illness, it’s normal to have all kinds of different feelings about it. Understanding your parent’s mental illness, and talking about it are ways you can offer support, while also dealing with stigma.

This might help if:

  • You’re confused about your parent’s behaviour
  • You want to know more about mental illness and understand what your parent is experiencing
  • You’re worried about yourself or want to get some support
  • You’re being treated negatively by others because of your family situation 

Daughter hugging father

Understanding your parent’s behaviour

If your parent has a mental illness (or a mental health condition) it might be hard to know how to cope or understand why they act the way they do. This can leave you feeling angry, helpless... and a whole lot of other things! But it’s totally normal to have different feelings about it. 

Some young people talk about feeling ‘responsible’ for their parent’s behaviour. But you can’t make another person unwell and you’re not responsible for making them better either. That’s something only they can do, with the help of mental health professionals. 

It’s also important to educate yourself as much as you can about your parent’s mental illness. It can make you feel less worried and more in control of things when you do. A good place to start is the Children of Parents with a Mental Illness (COPMI) website.  Check out their ‘what is mental illness?’ and ‘getting better’ videos. They also have really helpful content on different mental illnesses like anxiety and depression. 

Remember you’re not alone. One out of every five young people lives with a parent who has a mental illness. It’s really common. The good news is there’s info out there to help you understand what’s going on, and find support if you need it. 

Talking about it

Keeping your feelings bottled up inside is not healthy. Believe it or not, talking to your parent is a good thing. You might worry you’ll upset you them – but they often feel better when you understand what’s going on. 

There’s no right or wrong thing to say. It might feel hard to start a conversation, particularly if you’re feeling overwhelmed. But it can start with something that’s on your mind, like: ‘Mum, I’ve heard you crying and you’re always in bed. I’m worried. What’s going on?’

Try to have a talk when things are good at home and no one is upset or angry. Remember, talking to your parent about mental illness is never finished in one go. It’s something that can start small and build to bigger conversations over time. 

If you feel you can’t talk to your parent about it, then find someone else that you trust. It might be a sibling, other family members or relatives, or a best friend. 

You could also talk to a professional like a doctor, a guidance counsellor, a youth or social worker. You might call a counsellor at Kids Helpline (for young people to 25 years) on 1800 55 1800. It’s free (even from mobiles) and private, and you can call them 24/7.

Dealing with ‘stigma’

It’s unfortunate that there are still many people in the community who have negative ideas about mental illness. ‘Stigma’ is when people treat you differently or make you feel ashamed or alone because your parent is different. It usually happens when people are afraid and don’t understand what it’s like, or they have the wrong information.

Try not to feel embarrassed or frightened by people’s ignorance and lack of understanding. They just don’t have the knowledge about what’s going on. If they get nasty it’s best to walk away. If it’s your friends who don’t understand, you could help to educate them about how mental illness is common. You might actually help them become more aware by being honest with them.

What can I do now?

Last reviewed: 20 August, 2015
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