By Samantha Bennett
As a parent, it’s common to experience stress, anxiety, and feeling overwhelmed at times. But these challenges can get amplified for parents also managing a mental illness. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder before the birth of my children. I walked into parenthood knowing it would be just a little different than the experiences of some of my peers.
Understanding mental illness and its impact on parenting
Mental illness can affect all areas of life, including parenting. For some parents, depression or anxiety can make it challenging to find the energy and motivation to engage with their children. Social anxiety may affect a parent’s ability to attend school events or engage in playdates, which may impact their child’s social development. However, mental illness can be managed. There are things a parent can do to support themself to reduce the impact on their children.
The stigma of mental illness
Unfortunately, the stigma surrounding mental illness can cause parents to feel ashamed, embarrassed, or guilty about their condition. It can lead to feelings of isolation or a reluctance to seek professional help.
As a parent with a mental illness, it’s important to recognize that you are not alone. One in five people will experience a mental health problem during their lives, and parents are not immune. It’s helpful to seek a support network of fellow parents or mental health professionals who can offer guidance and understanding.
Coping strategies for parents with mental illness
One of the most important things parents can do is to develop coping strategies that work for them. This may include seeking therapy, practicing mindfulness, or finding healthy ways to manage stress.
It’s also important for parents to be honest with themselves about their limitations and to communicate those limitations with their children and partner. For example, a parent with bipolar disorder may need to temporarily take a step back from parenting responsibilities during intense mood swings. My partner has had to step up many times while I took care of myself.
Balancing self-care and parenting responsibilities
It’s easy for parents to neglect their self-care in favor of their children’s needs. It becomes even harder when you’re managing your mental health on top of it all. However, it’s important to remember that caring for yourself is essential to being a good parent.
This may mean setting aside time for exercise, meditation, or other self-care activities. Self-care looks different for everyone. It may also mean enlisting the help of friends, family members, or professional caregivers to provide support when you need it.
Talking to children about mental illness
As children grow older, they may become curious about their parent’s mental health. It’s important for parents to have open and honest conversations with their children about mental illness and to provide age-appropriate explanations of their condition. My own children were naturally curious about the medications I take every day. When they were younger, I explained that I had a “buzzing brain” that needed medicine, and as they’ve aged, we’ve had more in-depth conversations about my bipolar disorder and ADHD.
Talking to children about mental health can help children develop empathy and understanding for their parent’s struggles. It can also help them learn to communicate effectively about mental health in their own lives. Some illnesses have a genetic component, so it’s helpful for children to recognize the symptoms in themselves so they can reach out for support if the time comes.
The importance of seeking professional help and support
One of the most important things parents with a mental health condition can do is seek professional help and support. This may include therapy, medication, or support groups for parents with mental illness and their partners.
It’s important to remember that seeking help is a sign of strength, not weakness. When I first began my parenting journey, I felt horrible about needing support and medication, but my partner helped to put things into perspective for me. I wouldn’t think twice about taking medication for a physical ailment, so why did I see this differently? By taking steps to care for your mental health, you’re setting a positive example for your children and helping to break down the stigma surrounding mental illness.
Embracing your journey
Parenting with a mental health condition can be a challenging journey but also an opportunity for growth and resilience. Parents with mental illness can provide a loving and stable home for their children by developing coping strategies, seeking support, and prioritizing self-care. Being a parent with a mental illness does not automatically mean your children will have an unhappy or unstable home life.
Remember, you are not alone. There are millions of parents around the world who are navigating this journey alongside you. By sharing your experiences and seeking support, you can overcome parenting challenges with a mental health condition and embrace the joys of parenthood.
Samantha Bennett is on the Marketing & Communications team at the MHCC. She is a passionate mental health advocate and has lived experience of a mental illness.
When she is not working on her crafts and needlework or tending to her dog and cats, she spends her free time exploring Ottawa with her partner and two kids.