With one in five Australians expected to experience some form of mental illness during their life, researchers at Charles Sturt University (CSU) have examined one of society’s most vulnerable groups – the children of mental health patients - and how to prevent mental illness from being passed from their parents to them.
According to Charles Sturt University psychology researcher Dr Daryl Maybery, children have a greater risk of developing behavioural, developmental and emotional problems when their parents have a mental illness.
“We are aiming to break the cycle of mental health disorders, given that children of parents with a mental illness such as depression are more likely to develop depression themselves,” Dr Maybery said.
“We need to look at causes and intervention points to interrupt the cycle and prevent the transfer of mental illness from parent to child. If a child’s environment is carefully managed, there is less chance of an illness developing.”
Dr Maybery, who is with CSU’s Centre for Rural Social Research, and Dr Andrea Reupert, a CSU education lecturer, examined the needs of an estimated 1 million Australian children who live with parents who have a mental illness. The research aimed to help children develop coping strategies and define and provide information to support agencies that will help them meet the critical needs of children and parents.
The children in the study confirmed that while external supports such as state health agencies are helpful, it is the family and friendship connections that may protect them from extreme emotional upheaval.
“Our research revealed that the crisis time for children is when their parent is hospitalised due to a major mental health episode,” said Dr Maybery.
“It’s at this time when children are most vulnerable, they are under significant pressure and this can trigger mental health concerns for themselves.
“We can help kids cope in this situation by giving them a feeling of control. We recommend that families are assisted and supported to develop ‘family crisis plans’ these would include provisions for a grandparent or friend to step in when a parent is hospitalised. The knowledge and sense of security this offers is a great comfort to kids,” he said.
According to Dr Maybery, these children are lost in a system which caters for adult and child patients exclusively and not the children of parents with a mental illness. Dr Maybery estimates that 30 in 1 000 children are living in extreme risk, in a households with one parent that has a severe mental illness.
“There was no ‘home’ for these children and often when a parent was hospitalised with a mental illness there was no thought given to whether they may have children and what their needs may be,” Dr Maybery said.
They have undertaken research project involving over 800 participants in New South Wales, North East Victoria and the eastern suburbs of Melbourne, with the research expected to result in guidelines to be rolled-out to mental health support agencies across Victoria.
Dr Maybery received funding from the Victorian Department of Health, VicHealth and the national depression initiative Beyond Blue in the past year for the study, as well as assistance from North-East Victorian communities, Victoria’s La Trobe University and CSU.