When your parent has a mental illness

Emerging Minds, Australia, October, 2022

Resource Summary

This resource was developed to answer some of the questions young people may have when they learn their parent has been diagnosed with a mental illness.


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 your parent has a mental illness

Your first question might be: ‘Why does my parent have a mental illness? There are lots of reasons why people develop mental illness. It is not caused by one specific thing and sometimes there’s no real answer to this question. It is thought that mental illness is triggered by a combination of things, including:  

  • genetics – some mental illnesses run in families (but this does not mean that you will also become unwell – we discuss this later under the heading ‘Will I get a mental illness?’)  
  • lots of current stress or worries, such as ongoing financial or work problems  
  • a history of difficult and stressful things happening, such as childhood trauma  
  • certain thinking styles  
  • physical health problems, such as illness and injury; and   
  • using alcohol or drugs in an unhealthy way.   

There are a number of possible reasons someone develops mental illness and no one is to blame. Children of parents experiencing mental health difficulties sometimes worry that they did something wrong to cause the illness, or that they need to do something to make their parent feel better. This is never the case, and it’s not your job to try to fix your parent. Professionals such as your family doctor/GP or a psychologist can support your parent and help you to understand your parent’s experience of mental illness.    

Will my parent get better?

Another common question is ‘Will my parent get better?’ Recovering from mental illness looks different for everyone and changes depending on the type and severity of mental illness a person has, just like it does for physical illness. Take a look at Will they get better? A guide for children of parents living with mental illness for more guidance.

An important thing to remember is that mental health difficulties are common and treatment is available. You and your parent are not alone, and help is available to support you, your parent and your family.

Will I get a mental illness?

Knowing that some mental illnesses run in families might feel scary. You might worry and wonder ‘Will I get a mental illness like my parent?’ It is very important to know that just because someone in your family has a mental illness it doesn’t mean you will too. As we said above, mental illness happens because of a combination of different factors and genetics is only one potential cause. Remember, you are a unique individual, and your life and experiences are different to those of your parent.

We understand mental health better than we did in the past, and these days there is much more support available to help young people. We now know that there are things we can all do to minimise the chances of experiencing mental health problems. These include regularly connecting with friends and family, learning and practising helpful thinking styles, and working on ways to help you manage and express emotions.

However, if you do become worried that how you’re feeling might mean you’re unwell like your parent, it is best to reach out and talk to someone. Finding out your parent has a mental illness can be upsetting, but there is hope, and help available. Talking to your parent/s, a trusted adult or your family doctor/GP can help you make sense of what you are feeling. You can also contact Kids Helpline free at anytime for any reason on 1800 55 1800 or check out our guide on Getting help when your parent is living with mental illness.

‘No one knows why my Mum got sick. But they think it had something to do with the hard times she had when she was growing up. She’s pretty good now she has medication and a support group that help her. I do some stuff around the house when she does overdo it and needs some help.  

‘I get worried sometimes that I’m gonna be like her. Heaps of my Mum’s family have mental illness. But I haven’t had the other things she’s gone through and I also know who to call if I need help.’ 

Shane, 14, Western Australia

Looking after yourself

It can be hard to see someone you love struggling and know what to do. While you might not be able to directly help your parent, looking after yourself is important – and it’s also good for your parent to see you taking care of yourself. There are four simple things you can do to look after yourself:  

  • Talk to someone about how you are feeling – you don’t have to have all the right words or even know where to start, but opening up can ease the pressure and help you feel a bit better.   
  • Spend time doing things you enjoy – like reading a book, listening to music or spending time with friends.  
  • Go for a walk – exercise releases endorphins (happy hormones) which can make you feel calmer.  
  • Plan something to look forward to – perhaps going to the movies with friends or planning a picnic with them in a park.  

Looking after yourself is also called self-care. Headspace has a great list of self-care strategies you can try. 

It is very normal to have mixed thoughts and feelings when you learn your parent has a mental illness. Remember that help is available for your parent and that you can also seek support for yourself. 


1. Healthdirect Australia. (2020). Mental illness.

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