The first-ever online resource to help children and teenagers deal with parental mental health has been launched across Ireland and is now available to young people in Offaly.
The resource was developed under the guidance of people who share the experience of living in families where mental illness is a part of family life, and also in conjunction with service providers in the mental health field.
International figures suggest 68% of women and 57% of men with mental health (MH) difficulties are parents. Up to 20% of children and young people will have parents who struggle with their mental health either occasionally or daily basis.
This is often not spoken about and these children can be ‘forgotten children.’ But research shows that information can be protective; increasing the young person’s resilience and reducing vulnerability to developing emotional and Mental Health distress themselves.
The W.I.T.H project idea was first developed by Dr Sharyn Byrne (Senior Clinical Psychologist in the Castlebar CAMHS service) following research here in Ireland. Dr Byrne collaborated with Mayo Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), Mindspace Mayo, young people representing Mindspace and Comhairle na nÓg.
“At least 10-15% of children and young people will experience parental Mental Health at some point in their young lives,” says Dr Byrne.
“All the research points to the protective nature of information for this cohort; it helps them to understand what it is they’re experiencing, how they are not causal and therefore prevents them from internalising the distress and affecting their developing self-concepts.”
Dr Byrne found there were very few resources nationally, hence the idea to develop an online resource for children and young people who live with the daily (or occasional) impacts of parental Mental Health distress.
“The result is that we now have a much-needed young person’s guide to parental mental health,” Dr Byrne continues. “And we have established this in conjunction with a group of young people who were enthusiastic about helping.
“As a clinician with CAMHS for almost seven years, I work with children and young people on a daily basis that experience mental health distress,” Dr Byrne added.
Dr Byrne adds that, typically, young children use their parents and guardians as secure bases from which they can enter the world and return to if the world gets too challenging.
“However, if mum or dad’s presence and availability to the child is compromised because of distress they are experiencing within themselves, then their availability to their children will also be compromised,” she points out.
“If this is a pervasive issue for the child, they can develop fear in their systems; sometimes it reduces their motivation to explore the world and their trust in themselves.
“In some cases, children and young people can develop Attachment Disorders, an unwillingness to separate from parents and a seeking of closeness to reassure themselves that ‘all is ok’.
“This can also sometimes lead to the child not attending school or extracurricular activities, which are actually very important for their resilience and development of their sense of self.
“I have worked with young people who have found their parents after an attempted suicide. Such a trauma for the young people will lead to a pervasive sense of the world being potentially unsafe, leading to symptoms of generalised and relational anxieties that can be crippling.”
The W.I.T.H project is an easily accessible, informational forum.
“It outlines the various MH difficulties parents can experience and the possible effect of these on the children,” says Dr Byrne.
“We want this resource to get to as many young people as possible in Ireland.”