When a parent has a mental illness, it has a significant impact on children. Children of parents with mental illness (COPMI) face family disruptions that affect all areas of their life, including education. For example, is difficult for children and youth to complete assignments or focus on learning when one is worried about the safety of their parent or dealing with the stress of being separated from a parent due to hospitalization. Many children become caregivers for their parent and take on additional household responsibilities like caring for younger siblings to support the family. These added duties contribute to further stress and distractions from attending school, doing homework and studying.
Children often experience a range of emotions in response to their parent’s mental illness. They may be confused and frightened about what is happening, or angry at their parent or the situation. Some children blame themselves for their parent’s mental illness and feel guilty or ashamed of their family, their parent and sometimes even themselves. Sometimes children grieve the loss of their “normal” family life or the relationship they had with their parent before their mental illness. Children may need extra support to process these strong emotions and develop coping strategies.
Children of parents with mental illness are also at risk for a number of emotional, behavioural and social problems that can impact their behaviour at school. They are more likely to develop a mental illness themselves, because of genetic disposition and risk factors in their home environment. How Schools and Educators Can Help
Awareness of how parental mental illness impacts children can help educators to be understanding of their situation and support them at school. Teachers and other educators can be a trusted person for children to talk to about what is happening at home. They can also help children access additional support by connecting them with a school counsellor and providing information about available resources. When appropriate, extensions on assignments or additional support may be beneficial for children who are dealing with disruptions at home. Support Resources
There are several resources available for children who have a parent with a mental illness to help them understand more about mental illness and learn to cope:Kids/Teens in Control
are support and education programs offered through B.C. Schizophrenia Society for children and youth ages 8-18 who have a family member with mental illness. These programs help children/youth understand mental illness and develop healthy coping strategies and resiliency, while connecting with other children/youth who share similar experiences.
Canadian Mental Health Association – Vancouver Fraser Branch offers Super Fun Groups
for children who live with a parent with a mental illness. These groups build resiliency, instill confidence and increase children’s social networks through recreational activities and monthly outings. COPMI (Children of Parents with a Mental Illness)
is an Australian website that offers information about mental illness and advice for how to cope specifically for children and youth who have a parent with a mental illness. Breaking Down Stigma – Resources for Educators
The stigma that surrounds mental illness also affects children at school. People do not always understand or are frightened by mental illness – friends, classmates and teachers may treat children differently when they learn their parent has a mental illness. Children may even be teased or bullied. In order to avoid embarrassment, children may avoid inviting friends over or talking to them about their family. As a result, some children have difficulty building and maintaining friendships, potentially leading to social isolation and anxiety.
Educators can help by educating all students about mental illness. Providing accurate information and encouraging open conversation about mental illness helps break down stigma, creating a safer school environment for children whose lives are affected by mental illness. Film about Parental Mental Illness: I Am Still Your Child
The CBC documentary film I Am Still Your Child
, explores the experiences of children growing up with parents who have mental illness through the stories of three youth Sarah, Jessy and Von.
For children impacted by a parent's mental illness, this film can provide a starting point for talking about the challenges they face and learning that they are not alone. The film is also helpful for friends or classmates to better understand what may be happening so that they can be supportive and understanding.
The website iamstillyourchild.com
provides additional video clips, statistics and resources to accompany the film, including a discussion starter guide
with suggested questions educators can use in their classrooms. Children’s Books about Mental Illness
Explaining mental illness to children can be challenging. Here is a list of children’s books that can help start the conversation about mental illness:
Additional resources and books about parental mental illness can be found on the I Am Still Your Child website