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What Are Some of the Social Experiences of Young People Who Live with a Parent Who Has a Mental Illness?

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What Are Some of the Social Experiences of Young People Who Live with a Parent Who Has a Mental Illness?

"Families in which a parent has a mental illness are at increased risk of experiencing poverty, housing problems, family disruption and disorganization, marital conflict, reduction of social and leisure activities, disruption of children's schooling and isolation as a result of the parental illness (AICAFMHA 2001)".

The first onset of mental illness often occurs in adolescence. Young people with a parent with a mental illness are at a significantly increased risk of developing mental health problems, both now and latter in life. Apart from this increased risk, having a parent with a mental illness has a significant impact on the members of the family. Daily, children and adolescents in the family can face the stresses of caring for the parent. Stressors include the fear of developing a mental illness themselves; coping with the stigma that is attached to mental illness; and trying to manage the ordinary challenges of growing up, including going to school and managing friendships and relationships. Research indicates that a child of a person with a mental illness has an increased risk of:

• Developing schizophrenia or other mental illnesses (Lancaster 1999).

• First-degree biological relatives of individuals with schizophrenia have a 10 per cent risk for developing schizophrenia and an increased risk of psychopathology more generally (Hodgkinson et al 2001).

• Developing emotional and behavioural problems, social and educational problems, and disturbances in interpersonal functioning (Lancaster 1999).

• Developing negative coping strategies.

In many instances, the young people take on a primary caring role within the family. A young primary carer is defined as ’someone up to 25 years of age who is the main provider of care and support for a parent, partner, child, relative or friend who has a disability, is frail aged or who has a chronic mental or physical illness’ (Department of Family and Community Services, 2001, 6). It is estimated that there are 388,800 carers under the age of 26 years in Australia, representing 17% of all carers in Australia, and that

18,800 of these are primary carers. It is estimated that a further 6 - 10% of young people under 26 are informal carers. One quarter of young carers provide care for someone with a mental illness (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2001). These figures probably underestimate the total number of young carers in Australia, as many young people are not identified as carers.

It is estimated that by the age of 18, as many as 25% of adolescents will have had at least one depressive episode (Clarke et al. 2001). Young people who have parents with a mental illness are at an increased risk of, and are more vulnerable to, developing depression, bipolar disorder and other psychopathologies, including anxiety disorders, than children of non-ill parents (Lieb et al. 2002). Clarke et al. (2001) stated offspring of those with mental illness are four times more at risk of developing a mood disorder compared with offspring of healthy parents. Chang et al. (2000) reported that half the offspring of parents with bipolar disorder will have psychiatric conditions.

Given these increased risks and daily stressors, preventive or early intervention programs for young people in these situations are necessary. It is important to gain an understanding of what it is like for the young people growing up among mental illness, in order to try and assist them throughout their lives, to live a happier, more fulfilling youth. Both formal and informal support from within and outside the family is essential for the promotion of good mental health and the prevention of problems in families where a parent has a mental illness (Kinsella et al. 1996; Cowling 1996).

Cowling (1996) recommended the development of programs to increase a young person’s resilience by providing a safe environment in which skills and support networks can be developed, and information provided. Children could benefit from:

• social support systems including having someone available they can trust to talk about their fears, guilt and confusion;

• a safe environment in which to learn how to make friends;

• advocacy on the child's behalf with school, other agencies, and possibly the parent;

• an understanding of the parent's mental illness;

• counselling if necessary to address low self-esteem or lack of confidence;

• a range of recreational activities; and

• continuity of care with least disruption to home and school

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