My parent has a mental illness

Whether your parent has been diagnosed with a mental illness, or you think they have a mental health condition, it’s normal to have a lot of confusing feelings about it. Understanding and talking about your parent’s mental illness are ways you can offer support to the person you love while also dealing with any stigma their illness creates.

This can help if:

  • you’re confused about your parent’s behaviour

  • you want to know more about mental illness and to understand what your parent is experiencing

  • you feel you’re being stigmatised because of your family situation.

Mother with son blurred

Understanding your parent’s behaviour

If your parent has a mental illness (or a mental health condition), you might not know how to cope with the way they’re acting. This can leave you feeling angry, helpless, even embarrassed.

You may feel responsible – you’re not

Remember that you’re not responsible for your parent’s behaviour or for making them better, either. That’s something only they can do, with the help of mental health professionals.

Educate yourself about what’s happening

Search for, and read, information about your parent’s mental illness. Learning as much as you can about what’s going on may help you manage your fears and feel more in control. Check out the Children of Parents with a Mental Illness (COPMI) website, including their ‘What is mental illness?’ and ‘Getting better’ videos. They also have really helpful content on anxiety and depression.

You’re not alone

Remember that you’re not alone. One in every five young people lives with a parent with a mental illness, so it’s really common. There’s info out there to help you understand what’s going on and to find support if you need it.

Talking about it

Keeping your feelings bottled up inside isn’t healthy. Believe it or not, talking to your parent about their illness is a good thing. You might worry that you’ll upset them, but they’ll often feel better knowing that you understand what’s going on. Here are some tips for keeping communication open and healthy.

There’s no right or wrong thing to say

A good way to start is just to share what’s on your mind. For example: ‘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

Find a time to talk when no one is upset or angry. Don't expect to cover everything in one talk. It’s more likely to start out small, and then build to bigger conversations over time.

If you don’t feel you can talk to your parent about it

Find someone else you trust to have a chat with. It might be a sibling, another family member or relative, or a close friend. You could also talk to a professional, such as a doctor, guidance counsellor, or youth or social worker. You might call a counsellor at Kids Helpline (for young people up 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. When people treat you differently, or make you feel ashamed or alone, because your parent is different, they’re stigmatising you.

The people may just be afraid, or may not understand what mental illness is like, or may have incorrect information about it.

Combating stigma

Try not to feel embarrassed or frightened by people’s ignorance and lack of understanding. If they get nasty, it’s best to walk away. If it’s your friends who don’t understand, and you feel strong enough to tackle the subject, you could help to educate them about mental illness by sharing some of the things you’ve been reading about it.

What can I do now?

  • Learn more about mental illness at the COPMI website.

  • Talk to someone you trust, call Kids Helpline, or look online for web counselling and advice.

  • Build your coping skills.