Key messages

  • It is important to accurately and honestly assess the parenting abilities of a parent with a mental illness.
  • The safety and well-being of a child of a parent with a mental illness must always be considered.
  • Assisting parents with mental illness to plan around acute episodes is an important support.
  • Encouraging open discussion of a parent’s mental illness will facilitate better communication.

As a mental health professional, you can support parents with a mental illness by assessing their parenting abilities, discussing any concerns about the safety or wellbeing of their children, helping them to document prevention and support measures, and encouraging them in open communication and sharing of information.

Assessing parenting abilities

When making an assessment, it is important to highlight the strengths of a person’s parenting abilities while also confirming the limitations a mental illness may impose on their responsibilities. Ask for specific information about:

  • whether the parent has dependent children
  • the age of the children
  • whether the children’s basic needs are being met
  • whether the parent has or is in need of support to meet their parenting responsibilities
  • whether the parent has been separated from their children, and the impact this has or has had on their recovery.
  • Assessing parenting abilities is also crucial when a person with a mental illness is pregnant or is planning to conceive.

Safety and wellbeing of children

It is important to ensure that the safety and wellbeing of children of parents with a mental illness are adequately met. This entails discussing specific parental concerns around:

  • how their children are coping on a day-to-day basis
  • their children’s behaviour and emotional states
  • their children’s physical and mental development.
  • Based on your assessment, it may be necessary to contact a child protection service and/or other community service providers.

Prevention and support

Parents may need help documenting when episodes of mental illness are likely to occur. This process of documentation not only reduces the severity, duration or recurrence of an episode, but also helps to minimise disruption to a family’s daily activities and routines.

Encourage parents to plan ahead and develop:

  • a family crisis or care plan that includes working with family members, carers and community support services and agencies
  • a plan or schedule to ensure a parent is receiving adequate sleep, has a healthy diet and is performing regular physical exercise.
  • Plans help parents feel in control and children feel more secure and settled.

Open communication

It is important to encourage parents to openly talk about their mental illness. This involves guiding them to:

  • information about their treatment, care and support options
  • information they can share with family members
  • information that enables them to talk to their children at a level the children can understand.
  • Encouraging parents to openly discuss their mental illness and its implications greatly assists them in maintaining the support of their family, friends and community.