Its now good to challenge taboos; sexual orientation, gender definition, disability, race, and recently mental illness... but some still remain hidden. One is the effect of a parent's mental illness on those emotionally dependant on him or her - the children.
Did you know that about two million children in the UK have a parent with a mental illness and 70% of these children develop some level of mental health disturbance themselves?
"Mum was very suspicious and paranoid about everyone and she also made me suspicious and paranoid which was confusing and isolating," reflected Kirsty of her own eight-year-old experience - now at 21 graduated in Psychology. As she says, she was lucky "Having a place (in her case the Kidstime Workshops) where you can develop trust and have conversations about your parent's illness is not only a help when in a setting where you can talk. In hind-sight the bigger impact is remembering that there is that safe place where you can talk. It gave me a different model of relationships to hold onto in my head when times were bad with family, or with professionals who did not understand", or as Georgia (now 17) put it: "It was kind of like you had to basically adjust the way you see the world to your ill parent's view".
In the UK, Young Carers have been officially recognised since 1993 and in 2014 a law enacted to address their needs. All good. So why must this vulnerable group of children and young people, who are directly impacted by the parent's or parents' illnesses, remain hidden and ignored?
Many professionals fear upsetting or blaming the parents if the children are talked to. In reality the parents from families who have joined the Kidstime Workshops have not talked of blame but of gratitude that they can now help their children.
While Young Carers suffer from missing school, lower educational attainment, social isolation, as well as stigma and bullying, children of parents with mental illness have additional specific challenges. They suffer distress and confusion from the ill parent's 'ill' thinking and feel that they should try to agree with their ill parent, even if what the ill parent says is very strange or upsetting. They often experience great loss from feeling they have lost closeness with a parent they thought they knew before the illness and the stigma and may be worse if they feel embarrassed about their ill parent and even about themselves. In addition the effects of their parents' medication are often distressing and frightening they may have had no warning about these. They include things like sleeping much of the day, becoming more withdrawn and detached, suffering muscle stiffness or strange movements or showing increased excitability or irritability from some drugs. So that is a lot to cope with, on top of which they may believe and fear that they are likely to develop the same illness. The children of parents with mental illness are a hidden group partly because many have become expert at hiding their problems in order to protect the ill parent and the family.
So how can these children be helped to have a childhood and grow into adults that have a future?
Research confirms what young people consistently say they need:
• An explanation of their parents' illness with an opportunity to talk about their worries and concerns.
• Help to understand that they are not alone, to reduce social isolation, stigmatisation and bullying
• The support of a neutral adult to listen and act as advocate
In 2000 some colleagues and I began to explore how to help these children and based our work on those three elements above. We called the charity Kidstime and developed the idea of a multi-family workshop which we call the Kidstime Workshop. Kidstime Workshops are monthly after school groups of families where there is a parent with a mental illness - now 16 in the UK and eight in Europe. The workshop allows both children and parents to speak about mental illness and acknowledge its existence in the family. This is often the first time the parent has spoken openly about their illness. The workshop becomes a safe place to talk about the taboo subject and thereby boosts the resilience of the children and begins to develop confidence and pride in the parents.
Kirsty has now joined out team, and described five reasons why "learning about Dad's mental illness really helped me...
1. Learning more about a parent's mental illness helps you know what to expect because you're often scared of what you don't know.
2. Learning more about a parent's mental illness breaks the silence and stigma.
3. Learning more about a parent's mental illness is a form of recognition.
4. Learning more about a parent's mental illness can help children be more understanding of their parent's difficulties, be more sympathetic and feel less to blame.
5. Learning more about a parent's mental illness means you can explain it to others too."
But meeting those three needs that both children and international research have identified, can be done in many different ways
So if there is a will, and if we do not allow these children to remain hidden, they can easily be helped to build their resilience and the taboo be broken.