By Mosh Matsena
Parenting is a challenge. It can be quite daunting, even overwhelming at times. Both working and stay-at-home parents understand the demands of raising their children through different stages and difficult circumstances in life. The challenges, however, are exponentially elevated when it comes to working parents with children who have mental health issues.
Child mental health disorders can take various forms, from serious clinical mental illnesses to emotional health concerns to situationally triggered struggles (such as grief or post-traumatic stress disorder). The level of required special care varies, but the common factor is that the child’s mental health demands do not keep “scheduled hours” or routine, making maintaining a work-life balance extremely difficult.
For some parents, staying at home to care for a child is not an option as they may be the only or primary breadwinner. Even in dual-income households, we are in an economic environment that often demands two working parents. Furthermore, our governmental structures do not provide the type of financial support required to help parents with special-needs children, which means that parents have to come up with the funds needed for their child’s specific educational, medical and child-care needs. This necessitates them working full-time in most cases.
It is therefore imperative that employers offer systems and flexibility options to support parents in this regard. In order for the need to be recognised, however, employees need to disclose information surrounding their child’s mental health and care needs. Which leads to another factor – employees often avoid disclosing such information as there still remains much stigma around the topic of mental illness, particularly within the African context.
The reasons behind parents choosing not to open up are many. Some are afraid that they may be seen in a negative light by employers in terms of their level of work performance or their need for extra time off. For others, it is more of a larger societal issue where mental illness is seen in a negative light, spoken of in hushed tones. Employees are afraid to talk openly to their colleagues about it as they fear being treated differently, or seen as an “outsider”. Some people fiercely protect their privacy and how they are seen in the professional environment of their workplace, making discussing their child ‘s mental health struggles an especially sensitive topic.
We as employers, colleagues and communities can help change this by creating an ecosystem of support and openness around the subject of mental health. Such support should not be done in the form of “pitying” the parent, but rather in a genuine and empathetic manner based on understanding the difficulties faced by them. This includes perceiving that the parent is often under financial and emotional strain. The day-to-day demands can be exhausting on physical and emotional levels, coupled with insufficient sleep in most cases.
Furthermore, parents of children with mental health issues are in a constant state of adaption as routines, methods and needs change as the children grow, which means that parents have to research and evolve parenting techniques in an ongoing manner. All this while juggling their workloads and deadlines. Basic self-care (including exercise and personal development) becomes a luxury that not all parents can afford, be it from a financial, time or energy perspective. Therefore, the workplace environment and support systems are extremely important for the mental health of the parents themselves.
The month of October marks both Mental Health Awareness Month in South Africa, as well as World Mental Health Awareness Day. It is up to each one of us to create healthy and positive narratives around the topic of mental health aimed at improving the lives of those with mental health struggles, as well as their families and care-givers.
The key is for conversations about mental health to be de-stigmatised, both in the workplace and societal contexts. This will help parents and children to gain support and be open without being negatively judged or stereotyped. It will also lead to more robust dialogues around employer, governmental and social changes that impact mental illness care systems.
We need to approach mental wellness factors with compassion and kindness, cognisant of the fact that mental illness affects not just the person experiencing the struggles, but also their family and others close to them.
About the Author: Mosh Matsena
Mosh Matsena is a transformational leader with over 20 years of experience in the communications and media field, and extensive expertise in strategic management and building cross-functional teams. She is also the founder and CEO of 1Africa Consulting, a full-service communications and strategic business solutions agency.