Mental illness is a family experience

Thinking beyond the individual this Mental Health Week

We all have a role in creating a mentally healthy community that supports recovery from mental illness and reduces discrimination. Mental Health Awareness Week (October 2 to 10) is an opportunity to better understand mental illness and to fight the stigma associated with it.

One of the most powerful ways that we can all do this is to talk openly about it, and attempt to better understand it.

Most people in the community are now aware that approximately half of Australia’s population will experience a mental illness at some stage in their life, and about one in five will experience some form of mental health ‘problem’ each year. But are you also aware that around one in four of these individuals are parents, and that the experience affects their children and family in significant ways too?

The impact on children and the family unit

It is estimated that up to 23% of children live in families where a parent experiences mental illness. Naturally, their symptoms and behaviour have an impact on their children and family. Historically, mental health services have focused on treating a peron’s illness and symptoms in isolation from their families. Now, there is a growing awareness that an individual’s family are important to their treatment, decision-making and recovery. There are numerous effective interventions and programs (backed by evidence) that focus on the positive outcomes of working with the family, rather than just the individual with mental illness.

This is critically important, as the children of parents with mental illness are at a greater risk of experiencing a range of behavioural, education, social and developmental challenges, as well as a higher risk of experiencing their own mental health difficulties.1 Thankfully, there are things that children themselves, their parents, family, professionals (and of course the community) can do to prevent difficulties from occurring for these children. These things work to prevent the generational legacy of mental illness.

One of the most powerful things that we can all do right now is to talk about it. This is particularly important for young people who live with a parent who experiences a mental illness.

Talking about mental illness as a family

It is now widely agreed that it’s important for young people to understand their parent’s mental illness and to develop a shared understanding of it as a family. Providing children with the opportunity to talk about their experiences also makes a significant contribution to supporting that child’s present and future emotional health. It helps to reduce the confusion and fear that young people often have, and actually contributes to a child’s resilience.

So, how do you do it?

Talking about mental illness may seem daunting, but there are some straight-forward steps that you can take to approach it. Preparation is the key.

These resources can help:

Website information

  • Talking about mental illness with children
    Covers how to have the discussion with children of different age groups about a parent’s mental illness, including how to prepare for the conversation. (Whilst the focus is on parents talking to their children, this information is just as informative for anyone wanting to talk to children about mental illness.)

Videos help young people to understand

  • About mental illness – for young people
    A set of short video clips for young people (aged 10 years and above) delivers accurate information about mental illness in short, engaging clips that are each under six minutes long. Produced in partnership with young people, it helps them to understand what mental is, about different diagnoses and how a parent’s behaviour may be affected by their symptoms.

What else can you do?

  • Professionals: Learn about how to take a child and family-sensitive approach to working with parents who experience mental illness.
  • Parents: Read information about parenting with a mental illness, and what you can do to help your child and family.
  • Young people: Learn more about your parent’s mental illness, and what you can do to better understand it and live with it.
  • Community members: Be aware that most parents who experience mental illness do a good job of raising their children, though they may need extra support to do this. What they need from the general community is support and understanding.   


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