David Earl Johnson, LICSW

3 minute read

[Lightening the Load for Mentally Ill Parents][1]

The depression had lasted long enough that Loran Kundra thought she should explain her “crying sickness” to her 3-year-old daughter. Kundra had spent days in bed, staring for hours at the same spot. Little Megan had seen her cry too often. Kundra feared the child would blame herself. So Kundra sat Megan down at the top of their stairs at home in Wayne. “Sometimes Mommy cries and gets upset just the way that you cry and get upset,” said Kundra, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder soon after the birth of Megan’s little sister. “But sometimes Mommy cries and there really isn’t a good reason for why I cry.”

It wasn’t a conversation the average parenting book prepares you for. Or, for that matter, the average book on mental illness. Kundra, a lawyer who now helps with psychiatric research at the University of Pennsylvania, discovered after her diagnosis that parents with mental illness have few resources to turn to. “There is a huge gap in addressing the needs of parents with mental illness and their children,” says Nadia Allen, executive director of the Mental Health Association of Orange County, N.Y. It runs the Invisible Children’s Project, a program for mentally ill parents that serves about 18 families.

In a 2000 national survey, Joanne Nicholson, a University of Massachusetts Medical School psychologist, found fewer than two dozen programs specifically targeted at parents with mental illness, though many cities try to piece help together. Many caseworkers, she says, don’t even ask mentally ill clients whether they have children. “There’s a lot of things we didn’t anticipate with the deinstitutionalization movement, and this is one of them,” says Edie Mannion, program manager of the Mental Health Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania’s training and education center. Regarding people with mental illness, she said, “We forgot that they might go out and have relationships and have children.” Its a sad story about Kundra and her daughter Megan. Talking to children about a parent’s mental illness is a necessary but difficult task. The approach Kundra used seems perfectly appropriate for a three year old. The older the child is, the more information they need. But they need no more information than what they need to know to avoid the pitfalls of children of parents with mental illness:

  • Children of all ages are likely to blame themselves for their parents problems of any kind, including mental illness.
  • Children will take responsibility for mood changes of their parents.
  • Children will see miss-treatment as something they deserved to keep the parent in high esteem.
  • Children see their parents feelings are more important than their own.
  • Children will do more than they should to help their parent’s burdens. Often, this means they neglect their own learning and social development to take care of the parent.
  • The cost of caring for a parent is MUCH more than just falling behind. They often suffer from depression, chemical abuse, poor judgment, have destructive relationships as adults.
Look for updates on this one. I’ll add new thoughts when they come to me.

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