The state of a person's mental health affects their everyday life. Their emotional, psychological and social wellbeing impacts the way they think, feel, act and behave.
If a person experiences poor mental stability then they may develop what is called a mental health condition. This can be just as damaging as a physical illness and if prolonged, can negatively impact the way the person interacts and behaves with their friends, family and others around them. Within social care, this can also be exacerbated if the person who has a mental health concern is also a parent.
At some point in life, a mental health condition will affect around one in four adults (Ryan M, 2018). In the UK, reports of people experiencing poor mental health have consistently risen since 1993 (Mental Health Foundation, 2016). Like physical health, having a mental health issue is a broad term and covers a range of conditions that vary in severity. The most common forms include depression, anxiety, panic attacks and post-traumatic stress disorder.
The causes are varied. It has often been suggested that the origin stems from a genetic condition, however evidence now suggests that people who experience unfavourable social, economic or environmental factors are at just as much risk (Ryan M, 2018).
Factors that have been linked to poor mental health include:
- unemployment and debt
- domestic abuse
- family conflict
- poor housing
- physical health problems
- being a lone parent
- experience of trauma
Although most parents are capable of providing a safe and loving environment, the risk of harm to a child increases when a mental health condition becomes serious. In many Serious Case Reviews that have involved the removal of a child into care, parental mental health issues are often identified as a major factor (Ryan M, 2018).
In order to understand the impact that a parent’s mental health condition may have on a child or family, it is important for a social worker to have a complete understanding of their background and current circumstances.
An analysis of the situation needs to cover the type of challenges that the parent has, how long the condition has persisted and what type of support has been received. It is also important to consider the ages of both parent and child as this can be crucial in the child’s ability to understand the condition and be able to work with their parent to build and maintain their relationship.
Having an understanding of the condition allows the practitioner to work with the family to combat any sudden change in the parent’s behaviour, which can vary depending on the circumstances. If, for example, a parent suffers with depression, they can become preoccupied with their own feelings and can start to lose attachment with their children.
Another example would be the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder, which can cause the parent to act in an unpredictable and violent manner, potentially scaring their children. If a coherent response is not established, then this behaviour can have a lasting and damaging effect on a child’s development.
To respond to families who live with parental mental health it is important to consider all factors involved and use a whole family approach (Ryan M, 2018). Providing age-appropriate information to children and listening to the concerns of others within the family can improve their understanding. People experiencing mental health issues often believe their is a stigma attached and it is also important not to make the parent feel like they have a deficit in their ability to fulfil their role as a caregiver.
In a recent blog, Dianne Hunter reiterated that services should aim to build up an understanding of the issues being faced and aim to resolve it through consultation. Her work with the Young SMILES programme was designed to help children who live with parental mental health. The course featured activities and sessions for both the children and their parents in order to improve the child’s understanding of mental health and build positive healthy relationships.
To help practitioners to work effectively with people experiencing mental health problems, Research in Practice has developed a number of resources. Our recently released briefing on parental mental health, contains information and guidance for social workers and family support workers who are working with parents. As mental health awareness continues to grow, and with the right approach and guidance, social workers can continue to develop the confidence they need to achieve the best outcomes with parents, children and their families.