Will they get better? A guide for children of parents recovering from mental illness

Emerging Minds, Australia, October, 2022

Resource Summary

This resource was developed to reassure children whose parents are recovering from mental illness. It answers common questions about what recovery looks like, treatments including therapy and medication, and how to stay connected to a parent if they need to spend time in hospital.


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 it can be hard to know what this means for them or if they will get better. Keep reading to learn more about the different treatment options which may help your parent.

It can be helpful to understand more about your parent’s mental health diagnosis, including what symptoms are part of this diagnosis. When a mental health professional gives your parent a diagnosis, this means they look at your parent’s symptoms and use that information to suggest what illness they most likely have. Commonly diagnosed mental illnesses are depression and anxiety, but there are many others, and sometimes people will have more than one. Having a read of When your parent has a mental illness can help you to educate yourself more on what your parent may be experiencing.

Many people do ‘get better’ or recover from mental illness – but ‘getting better’ looks different for everyone. People can be unwell for weeks or months, and after they get better they stay well again for a long time, sometimes without the mental illness returning. Other people have longer term difficulties with their mental health, but may have months or years when they are well. Some people will experience symptoms of mental illness most or all of the time for their whole life, but they can learn to manage the symptoms quite well and still have meaningful and fulfilling lives. In this way, mental health difficulties are similar to physical health issues – some people have a physical illness like diabetes that won’t ever go away but can be managed quite well with treatment.

Things that can help your parent to get better can include:

  • talking to other people who have lived through mental illness and are on their recovery journey
  • having support networks such as family and friends
  • learning how to be hopeful and staying positive about the future1
  • finding meaning and purpose in life and feeling valued2
  • meeting with a group of other people who have similar issues to talk so that they can encourage and support each other
  • getting the right support and treatment. For example, visiting a doctor, speaking to a mental health professional and/or taking medication. Many people do all of these and have a range of support in place
  • spending some time in hospital, if and when needed.

How can mental health professionals help?

There are specially trained professionals and programs to help people recover from mental illness and live well with a mental illness. These include psychiatrists, psychologists, counsellors, general practitioners (called GPs), mental health nurses, peer workers, specialised day programs and support groups. These professionals have the knowledge to assess your parent and work with them to decide what treatments might be best for them as individuals. They will help your parent to learn the skills to manage their daily life with a mental illness, and work towards being as well as possible. Each professional has different skills or ways they work, so sometimes it can take a while to find the specialist or treatment that is best for your parent. This can be frustrating for the person with mental health difficulties, and their friends and family. But by continuing to try different ways to get better your parent can find what works to help them live their best life.

To learn more about their different roles, view our suite of mental health professional explainer videos.

Will they have to take medication?

Medicine (or medication) may be one of the treatments that professionals suggest to help your parent get better. It may not be the first thing they try, and some people don’t require medication at all. Everyone is different so different treatments will work for different people.

Medication for mental illness usually works on chemicals in the brain (called ‘neurotransmitters’). Often this means taking a tablet (or tablets) at the same time every day for a long time (weeks or months).

Unfortunately, some medications have ‘side effects’ – that is, they cause problems such as dizziness, nausea, tiredness, sleep problems or putting on weight, and it is important for your parent to talk to their doctor if they notice any of these.

Your parent might need to try different medications to see which one works best or has the least side effects and it might take them a while to figure out, which can be frustrating. But, with support from their doctor your parent can work out the best path to take towards recovery.

When your parent goes to hospital

If your parent has a mental illness, they might need to go to hospital for a while just like if they had a broken arm or their tonsils taken out. Being in hospital (which is sometimes called ‘respite’) is a time for people to focus on getting themselves better with help from doctors and other professionals.

Some people experiencing mental illness want to go to hospital and understand that it is an important part of them getting better. Other times their mental illness diagnosis can mean that they don’t understand they need help and have to be taken to hospital even though they don’t want to go. You might not get told what’s going on when your parent goes to hospital if it happens suddenly or because people don’t want to worry you. But it’s understandable that you’d want to know, and it’s OK to ask questions so you can find out what’s going on. If you can’t ask your parent/s, you could ask an adult family member or trusted friend who could help you find out more.

Know that it is also OK for you to:

  • take some time to look after yourself and engage in self-care activities such as seeing friends, going to a movie or getting some exercise; and
  • feel relief that they are away because it means they are getting support to feel better.

If your parent needs to go away for a while to help themselves get well they could try using the While I’m Away app. Having this set up on their phone before they go to hospital can be useful as it’s designed to help them continue to support your mental health and wellbeing when you aren’t together. It includes all the important information about you that people might need to know when caring for your while your parent is away and working on getting better.

The time people spend in hospital varies depending on the person and what their mental health diagnosis is. Your parents’ hospital stay might be only a few days or much longer. A team of professionals will work with your parent to figure out what will help them get better. This may include medication, talking therapy, learning new coping strategies and other activities.

Can I visit my parent in hospital?

You may like to visit your parent in hospital or you might prefer to stay in touch with them in a different way. It is up to you, your family and your parent’s doctors to decide what is best for everyone. If you can’t go and visit your parent, you may like to ask about other ways you can stay connected. This could include talking on the phone or video chat, sending text messages or writing them a letter. You might want to send them a care package that includes their favourite things like treats, a book or magazine, and a letter or drawing.

Sometimes, mental health professionals recommend that people have a period of time where they concentrate only on getting better and don’t have contact with anyone outside of the hospital – even family members and close friends. This can be upsetting and hard to understand. A professional will tell you and your family if this is the case, make sure you are all supported and help you understand it’s no one’s fault.

It’s natural to wonder if your parent will get better. Although it is hard to know what their journey to getting better will be like, there is every reason to be hopeful, and help is available to support you and your family along the way.


1. Acharya, T., & Agius, M. (2017). The importance of hope against other factors in the recovery of mental illness.Psychiatria Danubina, 29 (Suppl. 3), 619–622.
2. O’Donnel, Z. (2018). Sense of purpose and mental health are linked together. Psychreg Journal of Psychology.

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