Father of two, Duncan Large knows what it’s like to be a parent with a mental illness.
The 63-year-old, who is based in Melbourne, remembers a time in his mid-30s when things came to a head.
“My marriage was breaking up, my occupation was smack in the middle of a recession and I really started to struggle,” Duncan says.
A significant injury also prevented him from doing competitive running, which he loved.
Rather than talking to family or friends, he tried to hide his mental illness and resorted to drinking heavily instead.
Throughout his life, he’d bottled things up.
“Consequently, things happened like a bolt out of the blue for people.”
At the age of 37, he overdosed and was hospitalised. He spent the next two weeks in an inpatient mental health facility.
He has an indelible memory of his kids from that time.
“They were like six and eight or something, stood at the end of my bed, as I wafted in and out of consciousness, just looking confused. They didn’t know what had gone on,” he recalls.
Duncan has had various diagnoses since that time, including bipolar one and bipolar two.
And he’s often been concerned about the impact that his mental health had on his kids.
“It still worries me that what [my children] saw [was] quite erratic behaviour at different times, over many years, how it’s affected them, and they were never offered any help by anybody,” he says.
What’s the impact on children?
Duncan’s experience is not an unusual story. He’s among the 45 per cent of Australians who experienced mental illness at some point in their life.
But just because someone is dealing with mental health challenges, it doesn’t necessarily have an adverse impact on their parenting or the outcomes for their kids.
Today Duncan has a strong relationship with his two adult children, both of whom have careers involving social work and caring for people with disabilities.
He also works in drug and alcohol rehabilitation and assists at Melbourne’s Bouverie Centre with the Families where a Parent has a Mental Illness program (FaPMI).
The Victorian program aims to improve the support and services for the family of those affected, including children, young people, carers and parents.
“There’s plenty of information that says kids that don’t get support in these circumstances are about twice as likely to suffer mental health issues,” Duncan says.
“It’s really sad that nobody thought to ask me or ask them [at the time], it was just help wasn’t offered.”
Hanna Jewell is a social worker and family therapist who works with families with a parent who experiences a mental illness. She would like to see stigma around parenting with a mental illness lifted.
“One of the things that parents say to me is that often they don’t get a discussion with other parents. So they do this alone because there is a stigma about saying that you are a parent with a mental illness,” Ms Jewell tells ABC RN’s Sunday Extra.
“If you have physical ill-health, people will come around with casseroles to help and support. When you have mental health [challenges], you don’t get any of that.”
When a child becomes a caretaker
Phyllis Rittner, who is based in Boston, experienced growing up with parents with a mental illness.
“My dad was a very loving, brilliant World War II veteran whose undiagnosed PTSD morphed into severe obsessive-compulsive disorder with paranoid delusions,” she says.
These delusions revolved around asbestos diseases, mercury, radioactivity and pesticides.
“I was often woken up in the middle of the night to shower and pulled out of schools and parties.
She was caretaking her dad by the age of four.
“He would often ask me, ‘Have you washed your hands?’ and it would be a little game between the two of us,” she says.
“I knew very early that my dad’s fears were not logical, but I spent a lot of time as the family consoler, basically because I love them both so much and I wanted them to be happy, as most kids would.”
Sometimes it would take five minutes to reassure her father. Other times it could take a complete hour before he would calm down.
“So I became, as a child, really adept at lying pretty much to appease my father and also to predict his fears in advance,” she says.
Phyllis believes her mother also suffered from depression, although this was never clinically diagnosed.
She now shares her experiences with others to help others and raise awareness of the issues faced by those with family members who have a mental illness.
Need for open discussion
Professor Andrea Reupert is the director of psychology programs at the Krongold Clinic at Monash University.
She says while Phyllis’ personal experiences are profound, they are not uncommon for children.
According to her, one in five children in Australia will grow up with a parent with a mental illness.
She would like to see community services becoming more aware and responsive.
“Practitioners aren’t trained to do this and they often feel ‘If I ask, then I have to do something about it, I don’t have the time, I don’t have the expertise’.
“And parents are scared to talk about it because [they think] ‘If I talk about my kids or any problems that I have with my kids, child protection might come around’.”
Instead she believes in helping people with their parenting as much as their mental illness.
“It shouldn’t be separated; they are one and together,” she says.
“And if you can support someone in their parenting, they will often feel better about themselves interestingly, so it impacts on their mental health.”
Be as open and honest as you can
Duncan Large’s advice for other parents with mental health challenges is to be as open and honest as is practical and age-appropriate for the child.
“I didn’t know what to say when I first experienced significant issues [because] my kids were very young,” he says.
“So I guess you’re not going to go into as much detail as you might with someone that was a bit older and could understand that.
It’s also equally important to have professional help and a wider support team you trust and can work with, rather than just relying on family.
“It’s quite easy for the lines to get blurred between carer and family, often resulting in burning out family or damaging the relationship,” he says.
“I dropped through the cracks many times with the burden of care being taken up by my family.
“Since having a stable, consistent and trusted professional support network, I’ve done much better and my kids are now more kids than carers.
“I have an excellent psychologist and GP.
“That said, I’m still very open with [my children] so they may know when I am having bad times and can offer support. But knowing I have those supports has taken enormous pressure off them.”
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