Advice to Support Staff

Sad student

Here’s some important things you need to know as a school psychologist, school counsellor, guidance officer, pastoral care provider or student welfare coordinator…

Click on the orange arrows > to reveal information under each point.



What should I do if a parent or child reveals information about parental mental illness?

  • Listen in a non-judgmental way and value each person’s experience.
  • Assure the student/parent that they are not alone and that many parents (and other community members) have mental health problems at some time in their lives.
  • Ensure confidentiality and respect privacy (of both the student and the parent), – except in situations where you hold concerns for the safety of the child, parent or others. In this case you should alert your School Principal or refer the situation to your local child protection service or the Police. If there is a potential threat to the parent, student or any other person’s safety speak first to your Principal or School Counsellor.
  • Ask the student/parent if they can foresee or are aware of any barriers to the student’s school participation as a result of the parental mental illness. (Parental mental illness does not automatically mean that the student will have difficulties accessing the curriculum or interacting with peers).
  • Encourage the student/parent to realise that all families are different and that there is a lot to be celebrated about difference and the unique skills and experiences that students living with illness in their family bring to their school life.
  • Encourage the student/parent to plan for times when they may be unwell.
    • A child care plan for ongoing care of the child should the parent become unwell or require hospitalisation is extremely important. It can be shared with their family or other support network, GP, health worker and the early childhood centre where relevant.
    • Depending upon their age and comprehension level, it may be useful for children to be involved in determining where possible what will happen to them in such a situation.
    • A plan can help reassure children about things such as where they will be living, who will look after them and their pets and how they’ll maintain their regular routines.
    • See the ‘Supporting Our Family’ kit for a downloadable example plan for the child. . This kit also contains a sample letter for parents to inform their child’s school about their illness – this may be able to be adapted for other early childhood settings. A Western Australian version of this package is available from the WA Office of Mental Health website.
    • The COPMI site also has a downloadable example Baby Plan suitable for children under 2 years of age.
  • Ask how the student feels about their parent’s mental illness and correct any obvious misconceptions. For example, some children blame themselves for their parent’s behaviour and it needs to be explained that this is not the case – that their parents’ feelings and behaviour may be a symptom of their illness. They may also experience feelings such as anger, resentment, or shame. They may feel guilt from a sense of disloyalty to the parent if they disclose or want to disclose information about the parent’s illness. They may have wrongly assumed that they will automatically ‘inherit’ the illness. (see UK Royal College of Psychiatry Fact Sheet for Teachers No. 17, ‘itsallright’and VicChamps sites for useful information.
    Also see ‘Family Talk’ (in the ‘Whole Family’ section) for information regarding common questions children ask.
  • Ask if they would like more information about mental illness. If so, direct them to appropriate literature or websites for their age level. Access to accurate information about mental illness can help empower children and young people.

Dealing with specific concerns that students may raise or which you may need to explore further

  • Discuss caring responsibilities
    Eg does the student have to take on more responsibility within the family than others their age due to their unwell parent? Do they have the responsibility for their parent’s medication regime? Do they have the responsibility for getting their own meals? If so, are they getting adequate nutrition?
    • Recognise and acknowledge the important role they take on in caring for their parent. Offer emotional support, but do so tactfully as some young people take on caring responsibilities because they feel there really is no one else who can do what they do and/or that they should be the ones to do it.
    • Consider referring students who are providing care for their parent/s to a young carer support group or for respite from their care-giving role.
      Phone the Commonwealth Carer Resource Centre for local group details Ph: 1800 242 636
    • A compassionate community response may assist in meeting family support needs such as transporting younger children to school when the parent is unwell. This may be able to be accessed through a body such as your local government social services or the school governing council.
  • Discuss Safety
    Eg Do they ever feel unsafe/scared because of their parent’s illness? For example the student may be scared about something that happens during crisis times in their parent’s illness or about some aspects of the alternative care when their parent is hospitalised. If they have felt unsafe/scared in the past – do they have a plan now for what to do if it happens again or to prevent it recurring?
    • See the reference to planning above. Reinforce protection planning with the student and ensure they have the telephone numbers of about 5 trusted adults to call in an emergency. Also check that they know about the Kids Help Line Ph: 1800 551800 (encourage them not to hang up on this line if it is busy as it will be answered eventually – many children give up on telephone help-lines after waiting only 45 seconds). Discuss or refer the student on for assistance regarding the development of protective behaviours.
      NB CHILD PROTECTION: Check the mandatory child protection requirements in your state if you have concerns about the safety and well-being of any child as a result of the parental mental health problem and/or of any treatment contact your local child protection service.
  • Discuss school attendance/participation
    Eg they miss school or submit late assignments because they are looking after their parent or are tired when their parent has had a ‘bad night’.
    • Ask what you can do to assist attendance and participation. Ask the student’s permission to inform school staff about the parental situation so that special consideration can be provided for the student for their schoolwork and other related school matters.
      Local support services may be able to assist the family with domestic chores etc. Contact the Commonwealth Carer Resource Centre 1800 242 636, Commonwealth Carelink Centres 1800 052 222, or your Local Government social services.
  • Discuss Socialisation needs
    Eg are they involved in any activities outside of school or home? Do they have any friends? If not, why not? How can this be remedied?)
    • Encourage the use of friends as a support network. You may wish to check if there are places in your state where the student can meet others in a similar situation. Some states run camps and other programs for primary school children or young people who have parents with a mental illness.
  • Discuss involvement in bullying or teasing at school because of their parent’s mental illness
    Eg because their parent is perceived as being ‘different’ due to their behaviour or inability to take friends home.
    • Implement your school procedures in this regard. Consider implementing a ‘universal’ education program about mental illness in your school through the MindMatters programme or services such as MIE (Mental Illness Education), available in some states (see COPMI resources)

Recognise your own limits in helping the student and the possible need to refer for help

  • If a student has behavioural problems that interfere with their life and don’t seem to be improving, seek specialist help. Your student may require referral to the local child and adolescent mental health service.
    They may value the chance to talk about their parent’s illness, and their fears, with a professional who is familiar with these situations. They may also need help in overcoming their own emotional and behavioural problems.
    However, suggesting the student be referred to a mental health service when a parent has a mental illness must be done sensitively as it may invoke strong feelings of fear or panic in both parent and child.
  • Encourage the student or parent to speak to an appropriate support service if other major difficulties are identified. This may be their GP, a local community health centre, mental health or parenting support service.
  • As the concepts of mental health and family are both highly influenced by culture, consider involvement, liaison with or referral of students to indigenous or multicultural services where relevant (e.g. Aboriginal Education Workers) The Multicultural Mental Health Australia website also contains mental health information in a range of languages.
  • If you or the parent need information relating to family law go to the Family Relationships Online website provided by the Australian Government or contact the Family Relationships Advice Line on 1800 050 321.

If the parent has revealed the mental illness

  • Don’t assume that mental illness always affects a person’s ability to do a great job as a parent. Many people provide a supportive and nurturing family environment for their child/ren despite very challenging circumstances.
  • Reinforce the parent’s valuable role with their child.
  • Ask if there is anything the school could do to support the parent/child.
  • Help the parent reflect on their strengths as a parent and those of their family/support network.
  • Reinforce the fact that all parents find the task of parenting stressful at times and that they need to take care of themselves in particular in order to parent to the best of their ability.
  • After periods of illness some parents may experience loss of skills or confidence in their parenting so increased support and encouragement may be required at this time. In addition their child may need some help to readjust to the role of ‘child’ again after assuming a greater caring role for example for younger siblings.
  • Let them know about the booklet ‘Family Talk’ that has been developed specifically for families where a parent has a mental illness. Download a copy for them if they don’t have access to a copy.

Partnerships and Collaboration

  • Each family in which a parent has a mental illness has unique strengths and needs which may change over time and as the child enters different developmental stages.
  • Workers involved with the family from fields such as education, justice, child protection and health need to work together with the family and the family’s support network to ensure that services provided meet the family’s needs and in particular the needs of the children.
  • As an education professional you have an important role to play to ensure the student receives care, protection, relevant information and continuity of education.

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