Working with parents with a mental illness

Working with parents with a mental illness

18 February 2015
Working with parents with a mental illness

Andrea Reupert and Darryl Maybery outline some good-practice strategies for professionals working with parents with a mental illness.

This article is part of our Focus on... Supporting families where a parent has a mental illness.

Each year around one in five Australians will experience a mental illness.1  Moreover, many of those with a mental illness will be caring for dependent children. 

A child whose parent has a mental illness is at greater risk than other children of developing his or her own mental health issues. Thus, it is important that services identify and address any needs these families may have.

Parents with a mental illness face the same challenges that all parents face, but will be simultaneously managing the symptoms of their illness. Almost all parents with a mental illness are able to care for their children, but some, at different times, need support from family, friends and health professionals.

When working with families, it is important to establish how the parent perceives the effects of mental illness on his or her parenting responsibilities. Parenting is an essential role for many and one that may motivate them to get better. Even if children are not in their care, many parents are still keen to be actively involved in their children’s lives. 

However, asking someone directly “How are your children going?” may make the parent defensive and sound as if you are blaming the parent for any difficulties their children may be experiencing.  It is more appropriate to ask a general question such as, “Many parents who have a mental illness are concerned about their children. I wonder whether you have any worries about your kids?” Such a question allows the parent to discuss whatever issues they consider to be important to them. 

It is also important to let the parent know that they can support their children to understand the impacts of the parent’s mental illness. We are currently trialling a brief intervention called “Let’s Talk about Children”. In this intervention, a professional and a parent discuss the importance of talking to children about the illness, and together reflect on ways the parent may support his or her children within the context of the illness.  You can find more information about the program on the COPMI website.

It is important for families to have conversations about the parent’s mental illness. While professionals may discuss this with children, our research has shown that children would prefer to discuss this with their parent, if possible. These discussions are important as it allows the child to ask questions, make sense of what is happening and dispel any worries they may have. Parents also may hear directly from their children about their experiences of living with a parent who has a mental illness. As mental illness symptoms may vary over time and children’s questions may change as they get older, these conversations need to be ongoing. 

However, talking about mental illness can be difficult. Some parents struggle to understand what is happening themselves. Professionals may support parents by providing them with the appropriate language and discussing how they might hold these conversations with their children. “Let’s Talk about Children” provides a model for doing this that can be used by workers in a number of settings, such as child and youth services, adult mental health settings and other non-government organisations.


Further reading and resources

Academic journal articles

Maybery, D., Reupert, A., Patrick, K., Goodyear, M., & Crase, L. (2009). Prevalence of children whose parents have a mental illness. Psychiatric Bulletin, 33(1), 22-26.   

Reupert, A., & Maybery, D. (2010). “Knowledge is power”: Educating children about their parent’s mental illness. Social Work in Health Care, 49(7), 630-646.

Reupert, A.E., & Maybery, D. (2007). Families affected by parental mental illness: A multiperspective account of issues and interventions (PDF). American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 77(3), 362-369.

Other resources

Maybery, D., & Reupert, A. (2012).  Targeted family interventions for families where a parent has a mental illness: Early intervention benefits to children. GEMS (Gateway to Evidence that MatterS). Available at the national COPMI (Children of Parents with a Mental Illness) initiative website.

Maybery, D., & Reupert, A. (2008). The importance of being child and family focused. GEMS (Gateway to Evidence that MatterS). Available at the national COPMI (Children of Parents with a Mental Illness) initiative website.


1. See Australian Bureau of Statistics - One in five Australians have a mental illness.


Feature image: Mom/son moment, CC BY-ND 2.0

Add a comment


Andrea Reupert

Andrea Reupert is an Associate Professor in the Krongold Centre, Faculty of Education, at Monash University.

Darryl Maybery

Darryl Maybery is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences, Department of Rural and Indigenous Health, at Monash University.

Need some help?

CFCA offers a free research and information helpdesk for child, family and community welfare practitioners, service providers, researchers and policy makers through the CFCA News.



Sign up to our email alert service for the latest news and updates