Poor parental mental health
Many parents or carers who experience mental illness are excellent parents. With the right support, it’s perfectly possible to manage mental health issues without it affecting parenting.
However, research does suggest that poor parental mental health can be a significant risk factor for the development of mental health problems in children and young people.
Often, it’s a combination of factors that leads poor parental mental health to impact their children’s wellbeing. These factors could include:
- a child or young person’s social and emotional skills
- whether they feel overwhelmed by carer responsibilities
- what other risks they face in their environment
- how much a parent’s mental ill health affects their ability to respond to their child’s needs
- the extent to which a parent/carer has wider support to buffer children from cycles of mental ill health.
Children and young people who care for a parent who has mental health difficulties are known as young carers.
Identifying when poor parental mental health might be affecting a pupil
Children and young people spend a lot of their time at school. Staff can often be the first to pick up when a pupil is facing difficulties at home – either through behaviour, their relationships in school or through problems with focus and learning.
Safeguarding guidance stresses the important role that schools have in taking stock of child and family strengths and risks, and in identifying difficulties and mobilising early support.
Some signs that a child may be struggling when their parent is unwell include:
- withdrawing into themselves and becoming anxious or frustrated
- sudden changes in concentration or educational performance.
- changes in attendance patterns (linked to fear of leaving an unwell parent)
- school refusal
- other behaviour changes – particularly longer-term challenging behaviour
- a change in how organised and ready for school they are
- physical health problems
- frequent unexplained angry outbursts
- tiredness (often due to nightmares or anxiety).
What schools and further education settings can do
If you are at all concerned about a child or young person, you should always speak to your designated safeguarding lead as a matter of priority. They will be able to advise on suitable next steps, and speaking to them about any concerns should always be the first action you take, ahead of any of the suggestions on this page.
Notice changes and find out more:
- Ask students if they are OK. This helps them feel less alone, helps you understand whether their wellbeing is deteriorating and helps link to early support.
- Children and young people may find it hard to talk about a parent’s illness. They may feel embarrassed, frightened or confused. Talk about similarities between being physically unwell and mentally unwell to help avoid stigma. If appropriate, help them learn more about their parent’s illness.
- If you speak to the parent or carer, focusing on the child or young person’s needs can help parents/carers disclose difficulties and get help.
Even when a parent/carer is getting help, services may not focus on the child or young person’s needs even though they may be struggling:
- Use routine school/college contacts to notice how parents/carers are doing - like parents’ evenings if you hold them, or pick up and drop off time if you work in a primary school.
- Monitor on whether pupils are becoming isolated from friends at school.
- Work with parents/carers to explore how the school might keep a watchful eye on a pupil’s wellbeing during cycles of mental illness.
- Focus on family strengths, rather than problems.
- Know your broader local health and social landscape of support for children and for parents/carers (we have pages for schools in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales).
What else can schools or further education settings do?
- Ensure that your school or college has programmes or curriculum-linked activity in place to develop children and young people’s social and emotional skills.
- Deliver high-quality health and wellbeing education lessons to help pupils better understand mental health, and address the stigma around it.
- Make sure the whole-school environment communicates non-stigmatising messages about mental health.
- Positive relationships in the classroom/school built on trust, safety and security promote pupil wellbeing and provide the protective benefit of a strong relationship with a healthy adult.
- Schools can be important places to help parents get the support they need to make changes, so that they, in turn, can help their children. Staff should try and engage with parents/carers whenever they can and be a potential source of help, signposting them to appropriate support.
- Some children and young people will need a little extra help, either through school pastoral care/counselling support, through referral to the school nurse, through support from local young carer groups, through discussion with your additional learning needs lead or through referral to community-based support (e.g. community counselling, specialist CAMHS, voluntary sector and family support and children’s services).