COPMI - Children of Parents with a Mental Illness - Keeping families in mind

Mental illness impacts on children

16 March 2012

Research says parental mental illness can impact on children

A feature supplement in today’s Medical Journal of Australia, highlights the need for medical professionals to consider any children when treating mental illness in a parent.

Thirty-nine leading psychiatrists and allied health professionals penned eleven papers in the prestigious journal outlining potential risks parental mental illness carries for children.

“Mental illness affects one in five people at some point in their lives with one million young Australians estimated to have a mother or father with a mental illness”, said child mental health promotion adviser , Elizabeth Fudge.

Ms Fudge leads the COPMI national initiative, an Australian Government funded program that promotes better mental health outcomes for children of parents of a mental illness.

“COPMI sponsored the supplement to stress the importance of addressing parental mental illness with health professionals,” said Ms Fudge.

“The good news is that undertaking preventive interventions with families and assisting them to build their children’s resilience and reduce any risk factors can have a major positive impact for the children and the parents”.

One of the international experts contributing to the supplement, Dr William Beardlsee of the Children’s Hospital, Boston reports “systematic national programs are effectively helping break the cycle of depression and other mental health problems in families.”

Children with parental mental illness can encounter various genetic and environmental risk factors which impact on their development and resilience.

“Studies have shown risks increase when multiple illnesses present in a parent or, the illness is chronic and the social environment lacks any positive support”, said Ms Fudge.

Dr Nick Kowalenko, a supplement editor and child and adolescent psychiatrist, says, “children can inherit or develop an illness due to environmental stressors, therefore diagnosis and intervention for children when treating a parent should always be considered."

“It is generally believed the vulnerability of a child developing a mental disorder is arbitrated by both genetic and environmental factors which can be multiple and varied, said Dr Kowalenko.

A key environmental factor which can affect children is when a parent’s mental illness impacts on their interactions, or lack of them, with their children.

“Parents with depression are less likely to spend time with their infants and toddlers which can cause them problems with communication and social interaction as they develop” said Dr Kowalenko.

There is evidence to suggest anxious parents are less likely to give children autonomy and can demonstrate lower levels of sensitivity.

Research has also found a strong link between maternal mental illness and lack of parenting confidence, follow through and a presence of verbal hostility.

“Assessing the complete family situation, intervening with discussion, education and support and offering coping strategies for the whole family, can go a long way to developing a child's resilience.

“Children of parents of a mental illness will benefit greatly if practitioners or allied health professionals who are treating or supporting their parents consider them with the parent’s diagnosis and treatment," said Dr Kowalenko.

Guidance and online training programs which offer intervention strategies for professionals working with children of parents with a mental illness can be accessed through COPMI’s website at no cost.

Downloadable information sheets, video clips and the locations of known support programs for children and families can also be accessed from the site.

"Practitioners can start by asking their patient or client if they have any children and discuss whether they might need support and refer for intervention if needed," said Ms Fudge.

The COPMI national initiative is funded by the Australian Government and is undertaken by the Australian Infant, Child, Adolescent and Family Mental Health Association.


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