This article is one of a series aimed at exploring the problem of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and their harmful effects on the physical, emotional and mental health of our community. Substantial public health research confirms that mistreatment of children results in a variety of problems for them as they grow into adulthood. Although the problems that result from ACEs create ripple effects throughout our communities, research shows that we can build resilience to the trauma caused by ACEs. Resilience trumps ACEs!
By Jode Freyholtz-London, a member of the Crow Wing Energized Mental Fitness Goal Group and as has worked in the human services field for more than 30 years including as founder and executive director of Wellness in the Woods.
“Growing up in a family dealing with mental health issues can cause confusion, fear, anxiety, lack of parental attention, and a concern on the part of the child about their own mental health. Perhaps most importantly, basic relationships within the family can be disrupted and distorted, leaving the child feeling alone and unprotected.”
A mental health struggle within the household is one of ten Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) that may cause physical or emotional symptoms in a child. The fact that a parent has a mental health challenge does not in and of itself mean that a child will have difficulty in their childhood or adulthood. Instead, the issue is whether the parent is able to develop support and coping tools in order to positively raise the child.
Some signs that children may be impacted by mental illness are: the inability of the parent to provide a supportive parent child bond, poor communication, substance abuse, lack of healthy co-parenting, or hostile family environments. A child may show signs of distress by being embarrassed about their parent’s illness, being unable to participate in peer activities, having poor hygiene due to poverty or the inability of the parent to care for the child.
One specific concern is that mental illness sometimes has genetic components that can be passed on to children. This does not mean that every parent with a mental health condition will have a child who has those same challenges. At times the inconsistency of the family relationship can cause long term trauma for children due to the unpredictability of the illness.
Adults who are experiencing mental illness are often torn by the desire to be good parents and the very real challenge of raising children for any parent. Phrases like “But mom, the other kid’s parents come to their concerts”, or “Dad you promised you would come to my game this time” can tear at one’s soul. These parents are concerned not only with how to get through life, but this very day.
The biggest challenge to mentally ill parents and their children is the stigma that our communities still hold about mental illness. The shame that this stigma promotes results in families trying to hide mental illness. The average time between awareness of a mental illness and seeking treatment for it is ten years. Community stigma about mental illness is a huge barrier to treatment and healing.
We also know that one in four adults will experience a mental illness at some point in their lives, that mental illness is a biological condition, not a character weakness, and mental illnesses are treatable. Evidenced based treatment and support for families is the answer to the negative impact of parental mental illness on children’s wellbeing.
In 2006, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration authored a report to Congress outlining evidence based practices to support all parents, including those struggling with a mental health challenge. The key to all of their proposals was support. Support with resources such as mentors, child care, emotional support, housing, employment and affordable primary medical care for themselves and their children.
The truth is that those of us who have any disease, or choose to be parents, must seek support from a multitude of resources in order to have healthy families. Key strategies include: focusing on the whole family unit, engaging in some form of support, staying connected with your community, supporting kids in activities outside the family, creating a crisis plan, and recognizing personal strengths and building on them.