Leaving the Desert Island: Reaching Out to Adult Children of a Parent with a Mental Illness

“I think I’m not like everyone else because my mother was depressed a lot”. “I’ve never told anyone, but my father had bipolar disorder. I’m scared I will get it”. “No one understands what it was like to have a parent with schizophrenia. I don’t know anyone else who grew up with that.”

When I was working in private practice, I began to notice an interesting trend. Almost all of my individual clients disclosed that they had a parent who lived with mental illness. This impacted them in very similar ways, in their relationships, current challenges and worries for the future. And all of them expressed the perception that their experience was rare and unusual, making them (in their own eyes) also unusual or even abnormal.

I myself have a parent who has faced mental health challenges, and so I felt a kinship with these clients. As a mental health nurse, I was aware of how common mental illnesses are, so the sense that these clients had of being abnormal really stood out. It also struck me that we are a hidden group – adults who were children during a time when talking about mental health was taboo. We coped with our parent’s situation largely by ourselves or just within the immediate family. We didn’t go to peer support groups, guidance counselors or even extended family. For some, the experience was like being on an emotional desert island, isolated and alone.

In the intervening years, I left private practice to teach nursing students about family health and mental health. It’s been a rewarding career, albeit very all-consuming. While I remained aware of the prevalence of adults with a parent with mental illness, I had neither the time nor the energy to pursue any action regarding this.

Now that I’m retired from teaching, I would like to turn my attention to this lost and invisible group. While there are many excellent resources available now, such as Children of Parents with Mental Illness, I still find that most of the focus is on younger people, or on adults whose parent has dementia. There remains a dearth of supports for “Adult Children of Parents with Mental Illness”.

I would be interested in hearing from others with similar experiences. Do others perceive a need for support? What kind of support is needed by adults who had a parent with a mental illness?


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