Getting help when your parent is living with mental illness: a guide for teens

Emerging Minds, Australia, October, 2022

Resource Summary

This resource was developed to help young people understand how to seek help for themselves when a parent has a mental illness. This includes talking to others, whether a family friend or counsellor; having questions answered; and what to do if they feel unsafe.


Emerging Minds acknowledges that families come in many forms. For the purposes of easy reading, the term ‘parent’ encompasses the biological, adoptive, foster and kinship carers of a child, as well as individuals who have chosen to take up primary or shared responsibility in raising that child.

Getting help when your parent is living with mental illness

It can feel like a lot when you find out your parent has a mental illness. You might be stressed; feel sad, angry or anxious; or have trouble sleeping. And you probably have many questions. It’s important to know where to find support when you need it, so keep reading for info on where you can get help and find out more.   

Talk to someone

You could start by talking to a trusted friend or family member – someone who can support you and help you get the information you need. If you’re 14 years or older you can visit your family doctor/GP without an adult. Find out more about seeing the doctor on your own on the Raising Children Network website.

If you need to talk to someone right now, call Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800, at any time on any phone for free. You might feel awkward or it could make you nervous asking for help, but it’s worth it if it means less stress for you and your family.

In the following video (2 minutes, 33 seconds), from the Looking Back series, you will hear Jodie looking back on overcoming nightmares and her experience as a young girl growing up with a mother who was living with mental illness. Jodie discovered the importance of developing tools to manage her emotions and life more generally.

Warning: This video contains images depicting nightmares.

So many questions

Do you feel unsure about what’s happening with your parent? Are you wondering what’s wrong with them or worried it could be partly your fault? It might feel like nobody else understands what it’s like to have a parent with a mental illness.

If your parent is unwell, it’s never your fault. Try to talk with your parent or find another adult you can trust such as a family friend, coach or teacher. If you feel comfortable let your parent know that you would like to be included in discussions about their illness or treatment so that you understand what’s happening in your family.

There are some great organisations that offer phone or online counselling and have heaps of useful information on their websites:

Changes in your daily life

Are you doing lots around the house or helping your brothers, sisters and/or parent a lot? Does it sometimes feel like you are the adult? You might be finding it hard to stay on top of your schoolwork, or to concentrate or get enough sleep. Perhaps you feel nervous about your parent’s health.  

If you feel comfortable doing so, try talking to your parent about how much you’re doing to help out, especially if it’s starting to affect your wellbeing. They might not realise you’re carrying such a heavy load. If talking to your parent doesn’t help, discuss it with a trusted family member or friend – they may be able to help support you and your parent while they are unwell.  

If you do have a role in supporting your parent, you may be eligible for young carer services including practical assistance and respite (when someone looks after your parent so you can have a break). You can use the Young Carers Network interactive map to find carer support services in your state.   

If you find your extra responsibilities at home are interfering with schoolwork it is important to talk to a teacher you trust, the school counsellor or principal at your school. It might be hard to tell them about your parent’s mental illness, but there are lots of ways your school can support you. They could help you get extensions on assignments, or extra access to computers or learning materials. No matter which adult you talk to at school, what you tell them will be kept private unless they’re concerned for your safety. 

‘I was worried that if I told the school it would get me or my family into trouble. It’s been the opposite though. I’ve been able to get extensions on homework and I don’t get told off anymore if I’m late because of Mum. They also got some help for Mum through a local mental health organisation.’ 

Ethan, 16, Queensland

If your parent’s behaviour is worrying you or you don’t feel safe

Is one of your parents are unwell, staying in bed a lot, doesn’t want to talk with you, or is doing things that are strange or scary? If you’re worried or alone, or if your mum or dad isn’t well enough to take care of you or your siblings, then you need to tell an adult. Is there a trusted friend or family member you can contact such as an aunty, uncle or grandparent? You can also talk to your family doctor so they can understand the situation at home and can offer support.

If you need or want to talk to someone right now call Kids Helpline for free on 1800 551 800. Trained counsellors are available to talk with you anytime for any reason.

‘As I got older I learnt more about Mum's mental illness and developed the tools to protect myself in real life.' – Jodie

What happens when you talk to a counsellor?

A counsellor is someone who has been professionally trained to talk to people about different types of personal problems. They work in all kinds of organisations such as schools, universities, health centres and workplaces. Some things to remember include:

  • Your conversations with counsellors are private, unless they believe you are at significant risk of harm.
  • They are there to listen to what’s on your mind and not to judge you.
  • They’ll talk to you about how you’re feeling and coping with things.
  • They’ll ask you questions to help you to find solutions to your problems or suggest other things that might help.
  • Free counselling support is available under certain circumstances – check with your doctor to see if you’re eligible.

Remember that counsellors are used to hearing from young people in similar situations to you. You can speak to one at Kids Helpline at any time.

It can be hard to know how to start a conversation or to ask for help, particularly if you’re feeling overwhelmed or sharing your thoughts is new for you. Lots of young people feel shy or embarrassed when it comes to talking to others about their parent’s mental health difficulties or family situation. But it’s important to remember that you are not betraying your parent if you ask for help and you have nothing to feel ashamed about.

Counsellors are trained to help you express what you are feeling but maybe you could start with something like:

‘My mum/dad has a mental illness and I’ve been finding things really hard. I was wondering if we could talk about it because I think I need some help.’

Although it can feel scary when taking the first steps to get help, talking to someone about what you are experiencing can make a huge difference!

Discover more resources

Login to Emerging Minds Learning

Keep a list of your favourite resources for reference or try some of our courses.

Subscribe to our newsletters