Paying attention to the mental health of parents of children with a disability
Dr Elise Davis , Dr Kim-Michelle Gilson
Being a parent of a child with a disability can be challenging and stressful. Parents of children with a disability – particularly mothers – have been shown to report poorer physical and mental health than mothers of typically developing children (Gilson et al., 2018; Singer, 2006). There is a range of reasons why parents of children with a disability may experience poorer mental health, including the intensity of the day-to-day care requirements for the family, the struggle to find services for their child and family, social isolation, financial concerns and difficulty maintaining employment. Maternal mental health is not only important for mothers but is integral to child development (Bernard-Bonnin, 2004).
The role of practitioners in supporting parental mental health
Although it is well recognised that parents of children with a disability have poorer mental health than other parents, there are few services or programs in Australia that provide targeted support for parents of children with a disability. From a population-health perspective, there are many opportunities to improve the mental health of parents of children with a disability given they are often in regular contact with early intervention, disability and health services for their child. However, such opportunities are often hampered because professionals who work with children often lack the confidence, skills, resources or time to talk to parents about their own mental health. Even for adult-focused practitioners who may be more equipped to support the mental health of parents of children with a disability, it can be particularly challenging for these parents to prioritise their own health and wellbeing, and so interactions with adult practitioners may be minimal and insufficient.
Child practitioners are in a unique position to support the parents of children with a disability because they have such a thorough understanding of how the child’s needs and services may impact on the family, and often have an ongoing relationship with the family. However, to effectively support parents, it is important that child practitioners feel confident talking about parental mental health, know the boundaries of their role and are knowledgeable about referral pathways.
Training and professional development in this area is essential for practitioners. To be most effective, the training needs to be complemented by a range of strategies across an organisation that support practitioners in their role. Researchers at the University of Melbourne are currently working to develop and evaluate new programs to build the capacity of early intervention services to better support the mental health of parents and the mental health of professionals. As part of this work, the Staff and Parent Wellbeing in Disability Services study is currently evaluating a program that aims to increase the self-efficacy of key professionals to better support parents’ mental health. More information about the study is available on the University of Melbourne website.
Bernard-Bonnin, A. C. (2004). Maternal depression and child development. Paediatrics and Child Health, 9(8), 575–583.
Gilson, K. M., Davis, E., Johnson, S., Gains, J., Reddihough, D., & Williams, K. (2018). Mental health care needs and preferences for mothers of children with a disability. Child Care Health and Development, 44(3), 384–391.
Singer, G. H. (2006). Meta-analysis of comparative studies of depression in mothers of children with and without developmental disabilities. American Journal on Mental Retardation, 111(3), 155–169.
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