Parents with mental health issues: Guilt gives way to pride

Jeanette and her young son

Pictured: Jeanette and her young son.

Some people try to discourage people with mental health issues from having children. There is a widespread belief that this is somehow “best” for all concerned. With the help of two proud mothers, Warren Heggarty suggests that the issue is not so cut and dried.

Jeanette told Panorama: “During one of my stays in hospital, I was told ‘if you don’t get better we will take your son from you.’ It was heartbreaking! Not only was I experiencing the illness, I was also having this fear placed on me – not that they could have done it, but how unkind it is when people don’t understand mental health issues!”

We all want to give our children an environment which is safe and stable enough for them to flourish. But mental health issues can make this quite challenging. Hearing voices that other people (including your children) cannot hear might lead to misunderstandings and confusion. People who have extremely “high” or “low” moods can sometimes cause their children anxiety because they sense that there is something seriously wrong with mum or dad. Where parents have beliefs that other people consider odd or outrageous, children might find it hard going, and conflict may develop. But let’s not write off the idea of parenting too quickly.

All parents, whether they have a mental health diagnosis or not, are going to go through times when it is going to be rough for the children. Life contains many challenges which may be unpredictable. Losing a job, a family business going to the wall, the death of a parent (or a sibling), or serious physical illnesses.

Military personnel, for example, don’t usually resign themselves to celibacy because of the higher than average risk of early death and injury they face, or because of their long absences from home.

Many physical disabilities are inherited. You probably know of a family in which there have been vision impaired people or deaf people in each generation. What if someone suggested that deaf people should not have children? That would certainly not go down well!

There are some people who view it negatively when a person who carries an inheritable condition has children. Perhaps they have not thought the issues through fully.

Having children requires commitment of a kind that taxes everyone. There are examples of people with physical and psychosocial disabilities who make great parents. There are examples of people with no disabilities who are poor parents. The existence or absence of a mental health issue cannot on its own determine whether a person should or should not have children.

In the case of Donna and Jeanette, both experienced challenges not just as single parents, but as single parents living with mental health issues. Let’s hear about it in their own words.

Donna: My ex left me and I started to go downhill then. At the time I had small children. As a mother I felt like I was letting the kids down because, with panic attacks, I couldn’t really go anywhere with them.

Jeanette: I felt bad that I was putting so much responsibility on my son. I felt like I was just going through the motions of being a mother, but that I wasn’t really present.

Donna: Yes, I felt the same. They grow up quickly, though.

Jeanette: As a mother you feel so much guilt. But I wanted for my son to be able to achieve what I never had achieved. I am proud of the man my son has become. Regardless of my mental health issues I was able to raise a very respectful, loving caring young man.

Donna: Yes, all my kids have grown up kind and beautiful. It’s like what they have been through has somehow helped them in some way. Perhaps the experience has made them better people. I’m definitely proud of them.

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