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Emergency services attending a scene where a parent has a mental illness play an important role in supporting that person's children.
Here's how you can help when a situation involves the mental illness of a parent.
Enquire about children
Where a person has been identified as requiring mental health assessment or care, ask if that person has any responsibilities for a child (or infirm adult dependants) and if they need any help or assistance with the child.
It is important to do this sensitively as many parents are very fearful that if they disclose their needs, their child will be removed from their care.
Check that children will be adequately cared for
When a parent requiring mental health assessment or care is identified, make enquiries and arrangements to ensure that dependent children (and any infirm adult dependants) are adequately cared for.
- Some families where a parent has episodic experiences of mental illness will have developed a written care plan with their children while the parent is well, so that the children will know who to contact if the parent becomes unwell.
- Check with children to find out if they have such a plan. If no plan is in place, officers should implement their usual actions for minors requiring care.
- Police or ambulance officers who are responsible for transferring a parent into the care of a mental health practitioner are encouraged to advise the health practitioner about any dependants and about care arrangements made for these dependants. (Note: This information may be included on transfer forms in some jurisdictions - check local procedures).
Explain what's happening
- Stigma still surrounds the issue of mental illness in our community and this often results in people not talking about mental illness in the same way as they would if it was a physical illness.
- If police officers or emergency workers are called to a situation, it is likely to be one which is potentially quite scary for children if their parent is involved. Simple explanations and reassurance can assist children to make sense of what's happening. For example:
- 'Your mum/dad is unwell and we're here to help them get to a doctor/the hospital so that they can become well as soon as possible.'
- If the parent is being removed involuntarily, the children may need the situation explained to them. They will need to know that the police/ambulance officers are not wanting to hurt their parent but either may need to restrain them to stop them from hurting themselves or to transport them to medical help. For example:
- 'We need to help your mum get to the doctor/hospital as soon as we can so that they can help her get better. She is screaming a bit because she's not well but we are not hurting her – we are helping her. Maybe you'd like to take your little brother into the other room so that you don't have to see her so upset?'
- Note: Always go back and praise children who have taken a younger sibling (or siblings) away from a distressing situation. Let them know what the next steps are as far as their parent's care is concerned, and what you have arranged (if necessary) for their own care.
Help children understand that mental illness is no-one's fault
- Children often mistakenly blame themselves for their parent's illness and can easily misinterpret banter such as 'Have you kids been driving your Mum crazy again?'.
- Police and ambulance officers can help to reassure the child that they did not cause their parent's mental health problems and that mental illness is no-one's fault.
Educate yourself online
To learn more you may like to take one of COPMI's free eLearning courses for professionals online:
- 'Child Aware practice' – Covers a range of activities designed to ensure that children of parents with a mental illness get appropriate support from the services that are working with their parents and carers.
- Browse free COPMI materials – delivery is free within Australia
- The COPMI resource collection – comprehensive resources on COPMI-related topics
- See Gateway to Evidence that Matters (GEMS) research summaries of recent Australian and international research relating to children (aged 0-18 years) of parents with a mental illness, their parents and families.