Oct 5 • TEKU

Navigating Parenthood with a Mental Illness

Having a mental illness impacts your overall health and functioning, and its impact on family relations can’t be ignored.
Mental health conditions are common. One in five U.S. adults experience a mental illness and global estimates show at least 50% of us will experience a mental health condition in our lifetime.  Decades of research have documented the relationship between parental mental health and that of their children–the mechanisms are complex and include hereditary (genetic and historical trauma, for example) and social-environmental factors, such as stress, financial stability, the neighborhoods we live in.  Parenthood is an incredibly important gift.  Yet our current society does not meaningfully support  families, let alone those experiencing mental illnesses.  I spoke with three mental health advocates who are also parents living with mental health conditions.  Here is some of the wisdom shared.

Prioritizing self-awareness, self-love and self-care

As parents, we are often bombarded with messages that instill the idea that we must sacrifice endlessly to give our kids the best life possible.  This message has been exponentially harmful to women and primary caregivers who often give up careers, health and relationships to be there for their kids.  These actions often leave us depleted, resentful and not the best version of ourselves.  All parents spoke about the importance of learning what kind of “me time” was needed to support their mental health and how this practice of self-love and self-care resulted in better parenting and family relationships. For Dr. Devika Bhushan,a pediatrician, immigrant and mother who lives openly with bipolar disorder, sleep has to be prioritized.  Inadequate sleep is a well-known trigger for mood episodes in bipolar disorder.  She and her husband, Ashish, have created a collaborative team approach, where her husband ensures he is available for overnight and early morning needs for their toddler, Rumi.  In turn, her husband can take breaks in the evening, while she spends bonding one-on-one time with her toddler–”setting things up in this way helps to ensure that I'm my best and healthiest self as much of the time as I can be — and able to be the best parent and partner that I can possibly be.”

Empowering our kids by keeping them informed

Parents spoke about being conscious of their children’s chronological and developmental age, both of which can impact their ability to understand information provided to them.  All three said they have or will inform their children about their mental health condition and how it impacts their functioning.  This decision to disclose this information to your children may also be impacted by the severity of the condition and symptoms you experience.  For Dr. Bhushan, it is important that her toddler understands why he is not allowed to wake mommy up in the morning; Rumi is aware that his mother takes medication everyday and needs it to stay healthy. 

Dr. Sulman Mirza, a triple board certified psychiatrist who is very active on social media (@sulmoney), says he has not yet disclosed his diagnosis of Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder to his four children, but he plans to use his personal narrative to promote their understanding of their own mental health needs, if they were to arise.  He acknowledges the impact of mental illness and even intergenerational trauma on how parents raise their children stating he wants kids to know that “your parents are human beings who are trying their best, and they have their own struggles, but it (hopefully) does not make them love or care for you less.”

Growing wiser through our struggles

The idea of post-traumatic growth helps us understand that our struggles can come with wisdom, strength and power.  In the case of experiencing a mental illness, parents said that their own experiences with missed diagnoses, impact on their functioning and their overall health have created a helpful level of awareness about their kids’ needs and development, giving them the opportunity to support their children’s mental health needs holistically, compassionately and as early as possible. Dr. Ashley Perkins is a pharmacist, educator, mental health advocate and co-founder of We Matter Too who lives with PTSD, ADHD and Autism.  She says “I think all of this has made me a more compassionate parent given my child is more than likely autistic and has ADHD as well.”

Sharing our collective wisdom as parents with mental health conditions

Using our lived experience to empower other parents is one way to be a mental health advocate and promote family health.  Dr. Mirza reminds us, “You’re not alone…parenting is a hard period, and adding in mental illness makes it harder.  But it’s still doable.” He also wants parents to know “that it is not a guarantee that your kids will have the same conditions you have” but your experience gives you wisdom to engage in prevention efforts and support them if they do develop a mental health condition.  

Dr. Perkins reminds us that, “Sharing parts of your reality, which includes the challenges you go through, is okay because it allows your partner and your child to understand what it is you are dealing with–this allows them to support you. When you explain things to children in a way they understand, they grasp the concepts well. It also invites an environment of acceptance regarding mental health, and they will be more likely to open up to you when they are struggling because they know, you understand.”

Teamwork, perseverance, creativity are important ingredients to make all of this work.  Dr. Bhushan says, “You absolutely can be an incredible parent and partner with a well-managed chronic health condition, such as bipolar disorder…It just means you have to be willing to think creatively and put in constant work to prioritize your well-being so that you can be the best version of yourself–for your loved ones as well as for yourself.”

Kids are capable of compassion and understanding, if we give them the opportunity to be involved in the tough conversations

Kids are incredibly smart and perceptive.  They pick up on changes in our mood and stress levels.  Including them in tough conversations, in a developmentally appropriate way, can be an empowering experience for children to learn about health promotion from an early age.  This can foster compassion and kindness, which they can then extend to themselves and others around them. Dr. Perkins says that sharing about her mental health conditions with her son normalizes the full range of the human experience, ultimately opening up the space for him to share his own worries and struggles. She also notes that being open about her need to prioritize her health helps her son understand that it is not a lack of desire that prevents her from being with him at times, and instead helps him be more understanding about the differing needs of others when navigating meaningful relationships. Dr. Perkin’s son, Wyatt, wants other kids to know that “I love my mom no matter what” and that he appreciates being informed about his mom’s struggles. Dr. Perkins also reminds us that these conversations are ongoing and can be challenging, so make sure you remind your kids that asking questions is always okay. 
Created with