We asked Australian schools who practice child and family-sensitive approaches to share how they successfully support children at school when their parent/s experience mental illness.
Our thanks go to Gladesville Primary School in Victoria for submitting the below and setting a terrific example to other school environments.
How one primary school supports children, parents and families where the parent has a mental illness
What are your experiences with children of parents with mental illness, and how have you been able to support your students and their families?
‘We were able to support a family where the mum had moved away from the family to access support for her mental illness. As contact with her was limited the children were worried and unsettled about where she was and if she was ok. As a school we worked with the family to try to implement Skype conversations with Mum so they could keep in touch. We also collaborated with EACH (Social and Community Health Centre) and the Mental Illness Fellowship to support the family to have further contact. EACH then helped us connect the childen to the CHAMPS (Children and mentally ill parents) program which was a great support for them.
On another occasion we were able to provide support to a child and parent going through a custody battle when one parent was mentally unwell. Through regular counselling support for the child and working with the parent, the school was able to support the most appropriate living arrangements for the child preceding and following the many court proceedings.
Another of our students was in the sole custody of one parent who had a mental illness and needed parenting support. In this case our welfare officer worked with the parent on a weekly basis to support the parenting role and engaged with a support team for both child and parent. The welfare officer now meets with the child regularly and has regular contact with other family members as a means to support the family. As the parent is difficult to engage with on the phone at times, we have identified that text messaging is the most suitable form of contact for the parent and the school to work together.
We also have another parent with a mental illness and as a school are able to support the family by opening up opportunities for parent participation so that they can be involved within their capabilities and feel included within the school community.’
What is the key message you’d like to convey to other schools on this topic?
Mental illness is a part of life in every community, and as an entire community we need to embrace positive wellbeing and build knowledge and acceptance of mental illness, plus resilience in our kids. This in turn offers strategies for children to cope and succeed in life.
If we can achieve this, our children will model support, understanding and acceptance of mental illness in the wider community now and as they grow older.
How do you identify when a parent is experiencing mental illness and if they or their child needs support?
We do this through:
- Developing relationships with parents and communicating openly
- Identifying signs from those conversations
- Developing positive relationships with the children and ‘checking in’ with them on a daily basis.
- Teachers being aware of differences in their students during the day and addressing those concerns through conversations with their parents
- Other parents’ comments or concerns for other parents
- Knowing the community and taking an active role in identifying mental illness
- Being aware of trauma/loss that families may experience and offering strategies to support them.
How do you support children of parents with a mental illness whilst they are at school and in the classroom?
We do this by:
- Identifying workable ways to communicate with parents that is appropriate to their needs
- Supporting parents by transporting their children where it is needed
- Organising parent support groups – getting others to help when needed
- Communicating with staff, parents and children to maintain open discussions around needs and strategies to support those in this situation
- The SKIPS program ‘Supporting Kids in Primary School’ runs in our school on an biannual basis
- Training staff to identify signs in children and parents that they are unwell or need support.
Sometimes we support parents and families where there is mental illness by linking them directly with local services. We develop relationships with these services and get to know their workings, so that we can be confident in the recommendations that we as a school make; that they are worthwhile and support the needs of the family.
A key is getting to know our families well. We are introducing an external counsellor through the Eastern Melbourne Medicare Local (EMML) to our service shortly to assist families who cannot physically access services outside school.
How do you build other children’s awareness and knowledge of parental mental illness?
We do this by:
- Running the SKIPS Program biannually
- Running health and wellbeing education days at school
- Inviting organisations in to the school to speak to children about their service (eg. AWARE)
- Providing resources that are relevant for students to work through on their own around mental illness
- Running ‘circle time’ in the classroom for questions and answers on the topic.
How do you equip your staff to support families where a parent has a mental illness?
We do this by fostering:
- Open discussions within the community
- A whole-of-school attitude to mental illness, where it’s a part of life and not something that is out of the ordinary
- Professional development about mental health for our staff
- Involvement as a KidsMatter school and training staff in mental health
- SKIPS training for all staff with some staff also active SKIPS facilitators
- Ensuring that mental wellbeing is high on the agenda and prioritised regularly with staff at the school
- Positive preventative/intervention processes and programs that are offered to children, parents and families
- Casual parent support groups – that involve a cuppa and chat
- A Community Group parent library of information and parenting courses available.
What kind of challenges have you experienced when prioritising this kind of support?
Some of the challenges include:
- Breaking down social stigma around mental illness
- Other parents in the community not accepting a parent with mental illness
- Finding a way to engage with the families initially and opening the communication channels for reluctant families.
Do you have any other plans to strengthen your support for COPMI families?
Yes, we intend to:
- Continue what we are currently doing well
- Educate our Community Group (parent volunteers) on how to be aware of mental illness signs and how to support other parents and people experiencing mental illness
- Train up liaison parents in each class to offer strategies and suggest external programs that might be suited to families
- Continue to create positive relationships with each family to ensure that teachers ‘know’ the families of children in their class.
Who have been the key organisations you’ve partnered with to support COPMI families?
We have partnered with organisations, including:
- EACH (Social and Community Health Centre)
- SKIPS (Supporting Kids in Primary Schools)
- The Mental Illness Fellowship – which came about through communicating with contacts at EACH and their suggestions
- SFYS (School Focused Youth Services) through our local Council – on information distribution and their knowledge about area-specific support options
- The local church – on the Kids Hope Mentors program
- The AWARE program of South Eastern Centre’s ‘Against Sexual Assault and Family Violence’ – where we have ongoing contact regarding appropriate programs for children
- Child First – who helped us with the need to gain support in some families
- Connections – services referred through Child First and the DHS
- DHS (Department of Human Services) – who provided updated information on active files and assisted us to gain information regarding circumstance changes for children eg. foster care children. They also enabled us to enage with case workers to participate in support meetings for children
- Australian Childhood Foundation (ACF) – helped with counselling and therapeutic support for children
- Anglicare – regarding foster children and programs that they offer
- Parentzone – whose newsletter is particularly beneficial to give us a snapshot of programs for children.
Are there any particular resources you would recommend to other schools?
We would recommend:
- Knowing the local services available to your families that are SUITABLE
- Knowing your community and their needs
- Creating a cohesive environment that offers safety and a welcoming environment for families
- Establishing connections
- Setting up a current parent resource centre with books, programs available, reading etc.