What stops teenagers seeking help and what can I do about it?
Many adolescents who have a parent with a mental illness would like to talk to someone about their situation but at the same time fear rejection, stigma and ridicule if they talk to friends, family or teachers. They may worry that if they are seen talking with the school counsellor, they may be seen as different or their ‘secret’ might be revealed. Seeking help from a teacher or school counsellor may feel like an admission of weakness or a betrayal of their ‘family business’.
Teenagers are reluctant to seek help unless they can be certain that their conversations will be kept confidential. Some may prefer that their parents are not informed. Parents may have their own fears, including concerns that revealing parental mental illness will result in notification to child protection services or mental health services. This is a challenging area as families may have had previous negative experiences that reinforce their fears and there will be situations when it is necessary to make a report.
You can help build trust and confidence by:
Giving students a range of opportunities to access help, in large groups, small groups and individually.
Informing students about your school’s confidentiality policies.
Asking permission before you share information with other staff or with a student's family members.
Being transparent with teenagers who seek help about the role of social services in supporting families.
Assuring students that information will only be passed on if you have serious concerns for their safety or wellbeing.
Addressing any cultural or language barriers to effective communication, including offering translated written resources and making interpreters available, if needed.
What kind of help can I offer?
Remember that just providing information may sometimes not be enough. Young people may have limited internet or phone access at home and it may be challenging to find a private space to make a phone call or to access and read information.
Schools can help by making a private space available for young people to use the phone or to access mental health information online. s permission to forward their details so that services can contact them directly. You may also need to prompt them several times before they are ready to take the next step in accepting help.
Ask yourself whether the student could benefit from help in any of the forms below:
Information about mental illness
Young people often find it hard to access appropriate information about their parent’s illness. They may have concerns about whether they will inherit the illness, whether they are to blame for their parent's behaviour or want to know more about how to help their parent. In some cases young people may not realise their parent has a mental illness and may create their own explanations if they are not provided with appropriate and correct information.
Someone to talk to
Some teenagers find that the best support comes from family and friends and may not wish to accept professional help. Others may benefit from discussing ways to build resilience and coping strategies with a counsellor, psychologist or with their school counsellor. Some young people may also have their own emerging mental health issues that need to be addressed.
Social or educational peer activities
Young people who have a parent with a mental illness have told us that they value the chance to socialise and talk in a safe environment with other young people who have similar family situations. The realisation that they are not alone can reduce stigma and shame and encourage further help-seeking. The COPMI website features a list of organisations that provide this type of support - www.copmi.net.au/get-help
Practical assistance with household tasks
When their parent is unwell young people may take on a much greater share of household tasks than is typical for adolescents. Carers organisations, local councils and community mental health organisations may be able to ease this burden with practical assistance and respite.
Information about Centrelink and other benefits
There are a range of social and financial supports that may be available to young people, especially those who have a role in caring for their parent.
Questions to ask
Young people tell us that one of the barriers to recognising that they need help is that their sense of ‘normal’ is often skewed by their life experiences. It is hard to identify that you can use some support when you are just doing what you’ve always done. Gentle, open questions that explore their situation can help prompt an awareness of the need to get help.
“We did an assignment on mental health. It gave me an excuse to read about bipolar on the internet without anyone wondering why.” Shay-lee, age 13.
What’s it like for you when your Mum (or Dad) is unwell?
Can you describe your typical week when he is unwell?
What do you do for your siblings or parent when you’re at home?
What kind of chores do you do when he/she is well and when they are unwell?
Would you like to spend some time talking with me next time I see your Mum?
What could I do that would support you at home?
Would you like me to make an appointment for you?
Supporting parents to support their child
COPMI has a range of online resources and fact sheets to support parenting through mental illness, including specific fact sheets on help-seeking for parents and teens. Perhaps you could include fact sheets or short news items on mental illness in the school newsletter or have a regular feature to normalise the situation for students and families.
If a parent is open with you about their mental illness you could take the opportunity to discuss ways you could work together to support their teen, including signs that a teenager may need to seek support, behaviour that could suggest the young person is experiencing distress and what to do about it.
Research shows that parents who model active and appropriate help-seeking themselves can have an encouraging impact on their child’s willingness to seek help.4
Let parents know there are many ways they can encourage help-seeking including:
Providing access at home to online information about mental illness, or giving their child age-appropriate printed information, e.g:
Discussing with their teen how they themselves feel about seeking help and how they overcame any reluctance of their own to locating it.
Using positive terms to describe their own help-seeking as a strong and courageous action that helped them to build confidence s okay if they need help as well.
Creating opportunities for their child to talk with trusted friends or family. Talking together about which family members or friends can be relied on for non-judgemental support and confidentiality.
Offering to make an appointment for their teenager to talk with a professional such as a counsellor or psychologist. Making time to go with them if they would accept. Being aware they may need gentle prompting before they are ready to take this step in getting help.
Encouraging young people who are resistant to accepting help to talk about their concerns and explore solutions. Talking about previous negative experiences together and acknowledging that they may need to be persistent to find a service that is a good fit.
Recognising that accepting professional help can feel intimidating, especially if a young person isn’t exactly sure what happens at an appointment with a counsellor, psychiatrist or other health professional. Describing their experiences or inviting their child to attend some of their own appointments with them to reduce fear of the unknown.
Finding out whether the professionals who work with them can take a family approach by working together with parents and children to support recovery or helping the family to develop a care plan.
Being open and honest about parental mental illness.
Acknowledging the stigma often attached to mental illness. Inviting their teen to talk about any stigma they have encountered.
Letting the school know more about their illness and how the school can support them if they are unwell.
Preparing a Care Plan that sets out what should happen if Mum or Dad become unwell. This can be done together with their child when the parent is well so that everyone knows exactly what to do and who to call.
Emphasising that if their child feels scared or alone they can call the Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800. If they are in danger or it is an emergency they should call 000 straight away.
Parental mental illness in Aboriginal or Culturally And Linguistically Diverse (CALD) families
The ways that Aboriginal or CALD backgrounds conceptualise, experience and seek treatment for mental illness may differ significantly from your own cultural understandings, making it challenging to start conversations or to provide appropriate information and support.
Being aware of your own cultural biases is a good start - you can build your own understanding and access fact sheets in other languages by visiting: