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Coexisting Disorders

Impacts of Parents with Mental Illness and Drug Use on Children **

What are the Links Between Parental Mental Health Concerns and Child Maltreatment?


While a small proportion of maltreating parents can be diagnosed with a psychiatric condition, most people who have abused or neglected children do not display a significant level of mental disturbance. Being a parent with a mental disorder does not automatically lead to emotional disturbance for the child, not does it mean that the parents will not be able to care for their children. Overall depression and anxiety are the most frequently reported mental health concerns in the community, and depression is the mental health disorder most frequently associated with child maltreatment.

The interaction of mental health issues with the use of alcohol and other drugs can also be a factor in maltreatment. Distinctions need to be drawn between the impact of chronic mental health disorders, and situations where parents suffer intermittent crises, but otherwise are able to provide a stable environment. The ongoing presence of a functioning ally for the child or children is also significant in reducing the likelihood of harm.

Click here for some specific areas for assessing the impact of drug use on the ability to parent.


How Can Mental Health Issues Impact on Parenting Capacity


       Harm to child resulting from parent’s symptoms eg delusions involving the child, inability to meet physical needs, suicidal thinking including the child.

         Children may face boundary and reality issues because of the ways in which their parents’ functioning is affected.
       Care may be unpredictable and inconsistent, leading to attachment and behaviour issues.

         Children may have to take on responsibilities within their family which are inappropriate for their age.

         Stigma of mental illness leads to isolation.

         Parents are fearful that children will be removed, and are thus fearful of asking for help.

         Adult mental health and drug services are often not ‘family friendly’.

         Children’s lives are disrupted by parent’s hospitalisation and drug rehabilitation.

         Children may be affected differently at different developmental stages.

         Mental health disorders may contribute to difficulties sustaining employment, and to disrupted social relationships.
       Poverty and isolation in any context are factors  which contribute to the risk of maltreatment. 

         Because parents have difficulty maintaining relationships children may have no allies.

       Children may be learn antisocial behaviours associated with illicit drug use.


 V. Cowling, ‘Meeting the Support Needs of Families With Dependent Children Where the Parent Has a Mental Illness’ in AIFS Family Matters, No 45, Spring/Summer, 1996

 Y. Shipp, ‘Women and Children Living with Mental Illness’ in Balance, Queensland Association for Mental Health, Summer, 1999

 A. Tomison, Child Maltreatment and Mental Disorder, Discussion Paper No.3, National Child Protection Clearing House, AIFS, Melbourne,1996

References for older children:

S. Diner, (1989) Nothing to be ashamed of: Growing up with Mental Illness in Your Family. New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books.

P. Duke (1992), A Brilliant Madness: Living with Manic-Depressive Illness. New York: Bantam Books.

S. Forward (1990), Toxic Parents. New York: Bantam Books.

** This page is from a course:  Working With Parents Where There Are Mental Health Concerns 2000 Department of Community Services, NSW

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Related Internet Information

National Child Protection Clearing house

Child Abuse Links from Online Psychological Services

Related DrugNet Pages

[ Parent Drug Use ] [ Child Abuse Checklist ] [ Child Abuse Program ]


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Introduction ] Psychiatric and Substance Use Assessment ] Symptoms ] Anxiety Disorders ] Depression ] Suicide ] Personality Disorders ] Schizophrenia ] [ Impact on Parenting ] Disability & Drugs ] Psychiatric Drugs ]

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