Supporting parents who have poor mental health
Catherine Wade, Australia, October 2020
Children whose parents experience short- or longer-term mental health problems can face increased risks to their development, mental health and safety. Parental mental health can also impact on parenting and the quality of the child-parent interaction (refer to Parental mental health and parenting: How are they related? for an exploration of the potential impact of a parent’s mental ill-health on children and parenting).
Despite the importance of parental mental health, many parents can’t or don’t have access to supports to help them navigate the rough waters of mental illness.
How well-supported are parents with mental health problems?
The 2016 Parenting Today in Victoria study by the Parenting Research Centre has provided insights into the support needs of Victorian parents. Data were collected from a representative sample of 2,600 Australian parents (including over 1,000 fathers) of children aged 0-18 years.
The study found that parents experiencing psychological distress were less likely to have someone that they can turn to when they have problems in their lives (Wade et al., 2018). Around four in five (79%) of parents who had serious current psychological distress agreed or strongly agreed that they had someone to talk to if they had problems, compared to 93% of parents with low levels of distress (Millward et al., October 2018). This finding was consistent with past research (e.g. Isacco, Hofscher, and Molloy, 2016) and indicates a high level of unmet need of support for parents with poor mental health.
Parents with poorer mental health were also less likely to turn to family for help in raising their child. Only 66% of parents with serious levels of current psychological distress reported that they turned to family first when looking for help and support to raise their children, compared to 86% of parents reporting low levels of current distress. They also felt less supported by their partners than parents with better mental health.
Help-seeking in parents with poor mental health
Many parents with poor mental health do not seek professional support (Whiteford et al., 2014).
Some parents may not be aware of their own mental health condition or of the support options available.
Fathers in particular have lower rates of help-seeking and use of support services than mothers (Isacco et al., 2016). However, evidence suggests that when fathers receive information and support about parenting, there are huge benefits for children (Panter-Brick, Burgess, Eggerman, McAllister, Pruett & Leckman, 2014).
Where parents with poor mental health go for support
The Parenting Research Centre has been able to gather information about the types of supports that parents are seeking using the Parenting Today in Victoria sample. Parents with poorer mental health were more likely (92%) than those with better mental health (85%) to have obtained information and advice about supporting their child from professionals (e.g. general practitioners, speech pathologists, and psychologists).
These findings are encouraging, as they identify an opportunity for families to receive timely, non-stigmatised information, referral and support from professionals through accessible and familiar channels. Professionals, such as teachers and GPs, are in an ideal position to recognise the signs of parental psychological distress and to provide support to parents in their time of need.
What can professionals do?
The Parenting Today in Victoria study found parents with poor mental health commonly sought help in their parenting from accessible and familiar channels, such as GPs and educators. Therefore, it is clear that professionals can have a vital role in supporting parents who are experiencing psychological distress.
Professionals can support parents in the following ways:
- Ask parents how they are coping. There are a number of ways of asking this, but the most direct is often the best (e.g. ‘How are you coping at home at the moment?’).
- Ask adult clients with mental illness if they are a parent. Talk with them about how their mental health might influence their behaviour towards their child. This could include discussing how sometimes as parents when we feel depressed or anxious, we might spend less positive time with our children, and be more negative towards them. Normalise the conversation and normalise the problem (e.g. ‘Many parents feel this way. It’s good that you’re talking about it with me, there are definitely things we can do to help’).
- Be alert to the signs of parental mental health difficulties. Common signs of poor parental mental health include:
- low parenting confidence
- difficulties keeping up with parenting demands, such as getting children to school on time and keeping appointments
- mood changes.
- Be mindful that the most vulnerable people in our communities are also the ones most likely to experience mental illness. Professionals should pay particular attention to patients who are experiencing some form of disadvantage, such as poverty, unemployment, and being a single parent.
- Attend to and support the mental health of fathers. While mothers may be more likely to report mental health problems (Isacco et al., 2016), research by the Parenting Research Centre has suggested that almost one in five fathers experience depression and anxiety (Millward et al., August 2018). We also know that men can be unlikely to share that they are feeling depressed or anxious (Seidler et al., 2016). Practitioners should attend to the psychological wellbeing of the fathers they work with – and ask them about their mental health (e.g. are they feeling anxious, stressed or depressed?). They should also ensure that their mental health is supported. Research into the help-seeking behaviours of fathers and their preferences for support has suggested that:
- online parenting information is welcomed
- sessions that are outside of business hours are preferred
- information delivered via routinely-accessed services, such as maternal child health nurses and GPs, is viewed as more acceptable.
- Address parenting skills and confidence, including through supporting parents to access evidence-informed parenting resources. This can also have positive flow on effects for parental mental health. If you think online resources are appropriate, you could refer parents to the Raising Children Network for a credible source of parenting information.
- Direct parents who are experiencing mental illness to good quality and reliable supports in the community. For example, Beyond Blue offers quality information and support for practitioners who work with those affected by depression, anxiety and other mental health concerns. This should include normalising help-seeking and reducing the stigma associated with reaching out for help.
Catherine Wade, PhD is Principal Research Specialist at the Parenting Research Centre (PRC). Dr Wade is a psychologist with research and clinical expertise in families affected by vulnerability, mental illness, disability, and disadvantage. She leads a research team at the Parenting Research Centre exploring the evidence-to-practice gap with the aim of understanding how to best support parents to achieve optimal child wellbeing. Dr Wade is also a research affiliate with the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Sydney.
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