Parenting during recovery from mental illness

Emerging Minds, Australia, October, 2022

Resource Summary

This resource defines recovery from mental illness and describes recovery models. Adults experiencing mental illness are prompted to think about recovery means for themselves and their family, while considering how family involvement can be important for healing.


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.

When it comes to mental health difficulties the word ‘recovery’ means different things to different people. For some recovery is about aiming to be symptom free; for others it may mean feeling empowered to achieve the best quality of life possible while managing the symptoms of mental illness. Read on to learn about the role of parenting during recovery from mental illness.

‘The first step towards recovery is the scariest because you feel at your most vulnerable. It’s an ongoing process that continues as you harness and master your capabilities to succeed with life.’

– Nikko, father, South Australia

What is recovery?

While there is no one definition of ‘recovery’ from mental illness, the Australian Government Department of Health and Aged Care defines personal recovery as, ‘…being able to create and live a meaningful and contributing life, in a community of choice, with or without the presence of mental health issues.’1

The National Standards for Mental Health Services 2010, describes recovery from the perspective of the individual with mental illness as, ‘…gaining and retaining hope, understanding of one’s abilities and disabilities, engagement in an active life, personal autonomy, social identity, meaning and purpose in life, and a positive sense of self.’2

The things that play an important role in your recovery may include support from your GP or mental health professional; medication; community support groups; your friends and family; and your own strength and courage to navigate the path towards living your best life.

To learn more about the role of different mental health practitioners, view our suite of explainer videos.

What does recovery mean to you and your family?

Being a parent can also play a large part in this process. As you would know, parenting can be both a source of stress and hardship, as well as a source of joy, hope, love and motivation. As such, you might find it helpful to spend some time reflecting on the following:

  • What does recovery mean to you? For example: Is your aim to be symptom free or to live your best life while managing the symptoms of mental illness? A GP or your mental health specialist can help you with answers to these questions.
  • What is important in your own recovery? For example: Do you want to exercise more or have the energy to prepare meals for the family?
  • What role does parenting play in your recovery? For example: Do you find parenting difficult to focus on in addition to recovery, or do your children help you find the strength for the recovery process?
  • What does recovery mean to your family? For example: Recovery may mean your partner can return to full-time work and you can return to caring for your children.
  • What would help you and your family to understand recovery? For example: Making an appointment with your GP or mental health specialist to discuss what recovery could look like for you.

Recovery models

If you aren’t sure what recovery could look like for you, check out UK-based Rethink Mental Illness’ factsheet which explores what it means to recover from a mental illness. It introduces the ‘Recovery Model’, which is referred to as the Principles of Recovery Orientated Mental Health Practice in Australia. This model is used by health professionals, and includes principles which:

  • recognise that recovery outcomes are different for each individual
  • support you to make choices for what is important in your recovery process
  • protect your rights as an individual
  • acknowledge your right to be treated with dignity and respect
  • consider your recovery to be a partnership between you and your health care professional
  • reserve your right to thorough evaluation of your recovery process.

Learn more about the Principles of Recovery Orientated Mental Health Practice.

‘My children were a significant part of my recovery because I wanted to be the best parent I could be for them. Don’t get me wrong, I am not a perfect parent by any means, still making mistakes and learning. But realising and actioning ‘putting my needs first’ at times was the best gift I could – and can – give them and me. Getting mentally well, addressing unhealthy core beliefs and thinking patterns, and regaining a better quality of life for my family was my goal and I am very proud to say that I have achieved it. Recovery is possible for all who choose it. Choose it now.’

– Amanda, mother, Western Australia

Your family’s recovery

Whatever recovery means to you, it’s important to view it as a family process as well as an individual process. This becomes even more important if your family has faced some challenges as a result of your experience of mental illness. Perhaps you have not been able to take the kids to school or have spent more time in bed than usual. A lot of parents talk about the impact of their mental health difficulties on their family relationships, and about how important it is for them to be able to work towards addressing some of the effects.

When thinking of your family it can be helpful to remember that:

  • your children and family have strengths that have helped them get through – and you have contributed to their resilience
  • mental illness is not anyone’s fault (including yours) and this needs to be acknowledged and discussed as a family
  • family relationships can heal

It can be helpful to talk to your family about your recovery. You may wish to try the following:

  • Start the conversation about what you have been experiencing and ask what they have noticed. Your children may have made their own assumptions about what has been going on for you, so this is a good opportunity to listen and then reflect back to them in an age-appropriate way. It can also be helpful to have this conversation at different times during your recovery, which will continue to support open lines of communication within your family.
  • Let your children know what recovery could look like for you and what they can expect during this time. Let them ask questions and answer as you feel comfortable. Let your children know what they can do to help. Perhaps it is packing their own lunch for school or quietly watching some television when you are tired. Often, children like to feel useful and help you in your recovery process.
  • Ask your children what is important to them. Is there something simple you can do during your recovery such as tuck them in each night for bed or bake them biscuits for their lunch boxes? Something small and achievable that reminds them you care and are working hard to recover.

Recovery from a mental illness is possible, and although it looks different for everyone, knowing what is important to you is the first step. Although parenting can be complex and challenging during this time, communicating with your children (in an age-appropriate way) can ensure you all support each other through the recovery process, leading you all to live your best lives.

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