Could mental health issues help with parenting?

Fiona Thomas

Many parents fear passing mental illness on to their children. But being open about mental health could actually improve your parenting…

“That was the main difference between me and my dad” says Jon, a 41-year-old business-owner from London, “I had access to talking therapy and he didn’t.”

As a teenage boy in the early Nineties, Jon watched in frustration as his dad lay on the sofa watching TV day after day. His father had once run his own company but after the recession hit he had no choice but to close the business, something which would lead to his subsequent depression. The family didn’t know how to talk about the problem and silently hoped that things would improve on their own, but after multiple attempts, he unfortunately took his own life in 1995. Jon was just 17 years old at the time.

Jon running the 2017 London Marathon for the mental health charity Heads Together

Only a few years later, Jon had a psychotic episode of his own. He was diagnosed with depression and eventually attempted suicide, but just as history threatened to repeat itself Jon checked into The Priory where he received therapy which ultimately saved him.

Jon has now made it his mission to break the cycle and talk openly about mental illness to his friends, in the workplace and also to his two children. He started putting photographs of his late father in prominent places around his home—in stark contrast to his direct family who has always avoided talking about suicide—in the hope that one day, his children will want to know more about the man in the photographs. “When I was growing up, the vocabulary that I had to express my emotions was very limited. I didn’t have the language” says Jon. Now he encourages his young children to watch TV shows and read books which subtly educate them on topics around negative emotions, something that he hopes will make them healthier in the long run.

"When I was growing up, the vocabulary I had to express my emotions was very limited. I didn’t have the language"

Jon is a prime example of how having a mental illness can inform better parenting, but many adults with mental health concerns are genuinely scared of passing on their condition to future generations. Studies reveal that the link between mental illness and genetics isn’t that clear-cut. Research by King’s College London shows that mental health disorders should no longer be discussed in relation to a single gene (in the way that some physical conditions are) but instead a collection of genes.

Psychotherapist Paula Coles explains that the complicated nature of genetics combined with the different environmental variables at play, means that there’s almost no way to predict whether a parent with mental illness will pass it onto their offspring. She did, however, express that in many cases, individuals who have been diagnosed with a mental illness boast skills which are beneficial when it comes to everyday financial worries, work stress and other common family matters. So much so that those affected are sometimes better equipped than those who have never had access to mental health services.

Jon discussing mental health with Prince William

“When you bring all that stress together to a family [with a potentially hereditary mental illness] but that parent also has lots of support and resources, it’s an even better environment than someone in a stressful environment without the mental illness genes.”

"I needed help with retaining 'me' and still having a life and not feeling guilty about that"

According to Paula, it comes down to heightened emotional awareness and the practical implementation of self-care activities, something which recovered sufferers tend to take more seriously. When someone manages to build up a good resilience tool-kit, Paula claims that this will “absolutely make them a better parent”, effectively securing an investment in themselves which will have a knock-on effect for the family unit.

For Jon, it’s the simple things like going to a café and enjoying a coffee, getting some exercise or watching his favourite band play, but it extends deeper than just scheduling in alone time. For performance coach and mother of three Louise Cartwright it’s about reclaiming her identity, something that new mothers especially struggle to cope with.

“What I needed help with was not so much how to mother, but how to retain ‘me’ and still have a life, and not feel guilty about that”, she explains.

"If my boys are sad, I want to talk about it, and that's a direct result of learning about my own mental illness"

 

Mother of two, Amy Holland found meaning in doing something for herself too. She experienced postnatal depression with both of her children and as a result, decided to start her own business to give herself flexibility and self-fulfilment as a single parent.

It all started with a card from a friend which came printed with a positive affirmation on the front. It read, “you are braver than you think.” Amy says, “I looked at it every day, recited it out loud and that had a huge impact on my mental wellbeing. Eventually I collected and created more positive affirmations and set up a business selling my own cards (icancards.co.uk, pictured below) specifically for people who have a mental illness.”

Amy Holland

Amy’s journey has clearly shaped her parenting style, one which she hopes is an improvement on her own upbringing. She has no recollection of ever talking about emotions as a child and this has made her adamant that nothing will be brushed under the carpet in her own family. “If the boys are sad then I want to talk about it and that’s a direct result of learning about my own mental illness.”

"I fear that it's especially hard for boys to show how they feel, and I'm determined to make them comfortable with their emotions"

Whilst creating her own self-care routine Amy has made a conscious decision to find tools that work for her kids too. These include getting them to use a worry jar, keep a journal, discuss affirmations, read books that discuss emotions and get creative by drawing emojis of sad faces.

Amy Holland's sons, Fin and Roo

She makes a point of telling them that it’s OK to feel negative emotions like anger, sadness and worry because she feels that young boys are particularly vulnerable to societal ideals. “I fear that it’s especially hard for them to show how they feel and I’m determined to make them self-aware and comfortable with their emotions.”

This deliberate decision to dig deep emotionally is a powerful tool that all parents could benefit from implementing at home. In fact, Paula reveals that a common issue she sees in teenagers today comes from their parents’ inability to talk about complex emotions or even identify them in the first place.

"Adults constantly shut down their child's right to have a bad day. They're constantly told to cheer up

“Adults constantly shut down their child’s right to have a bad day” says Paula. “They are told to cheer up or smile, and this isn’t healthy. Having the ability to not close off these emotions is helpful.”

Performance coach Louise Cartwright with two of her children

No one is perfect, but a parent with experience of overcoming hurdles in the past is almost guaranteed to be successful if they draw on the skills they’ve developed to cope with mental illness. Whether it’s setting aside time for reflection, prioritising hobbies or just knowing that factors such as sleep and exercise can vastly affect one’s mood, parents with mental illness should draw on their personal experience to guide their children through life. This, and the capacity to let difficult conversations occur is something Louise has become particularly accustomed to, after battling with postnatal depression and anxiety as an adult. She says that ultimately, parents shouldn’t worry about solving all their child’s problems but instead focus on talking it through with honesty and empathy.

“I’m inviting my children into conversations where they work out their own answers rather than me telling them what I think is right, and I have faith I’m doing the right thing.”