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Supporting school children whose parents are diagnosed with a mental illness

  • How do children experience living with a parent with mental illness?
  • How do children manage this experience?
  • What are the outcomes for children in the school environment?
  • How can schools support children whose parents have mental health issues?

As a school counsellor one of the areas of my work is supporting students whose parents have been diagnosed with a mental illness. Over the years I have dealt with students whose lives have changed fundamentally because of their parent’s mental health.

Tim’s Story

(The name of the student has been changed for confidentiality)

Tim was a bright student, hard working, well behaved with good attendance. In June 2010 Tim’s life would change after his father had a mental breakdown two days before his first GCSE science exam. He phoned me, he had not come to school but wanted to speak with me urgently, he told me he was coming with his mum – it was Friday morning.

When they both arrived, mum was concerned that the school was aware that Tim might not turn up to his exam on Monday morning, because dad was having a mental breakdown, this had started the previous night, he was saying negative things, being threatening to mum and threatening Tim. On their arrival at school they were both concerned about dad’s welfare because he had left home and they did not know where he was. Mum wanted Tim to do his exams, because she knew how important they were to and Tim had been working hard revising and staying after school for revision classes.

Tim was more worried about mum and what might happen to mum if dad came home, I realized that Tim had moved from being a child to being his mother’s protector, this is not to say that he was not concerned about what was happening to his father. During my conversation with Tim the phone rang, it was his sister telling him that dad had returned to the house, Tim and mum left immediately.

I informed both the child protection office and the pastoral deputy head about the situation, and spoke to the examination officer to see what could be done for Tim if he was unable to take the exam. Before I left work I phoned Mum to inform her of the steps I had taken to support Tim through his exams and to get a better idea of what was happening with the family, the police were called and dad had been arrested for trying to assault the police.
On Monday morning I went to the exam hall to see if Tim came to school, he was there and on time, I asked him to come and see me after the exam, he wasn’t looking good, I could see that he hadn’t slept well and was looking pale and drawn.

Over the weekend dad had been sectioned under the Mental Health Act and sent to hospital for one week. Tim felt safe, dad wanted to come home, mum wanted dad home but Tim didn’t want dad home, he was scared, he had seen what dad could do, besides it wasn’t his dad anymore this was a different person, someone he didn’t know.

One week later dad was allowed home. Mum was pleased and worried at the same time; she loved him and had supported him for many years. Tim was scared, he slept with a baseball bat beside his bed in case dad attacked him, I asked him how he would feel if he hurt his father seriously with the baseball bat, he had mixed feelings he didn’t want to hurt his dad because he loved him, but this man wasn’t the dad he knew.

I discussed with Tim my concerns for his safety, and told him that I had no choice but to report the matter to social services, this was a child protection issue and that I had to follow procedure. I discussed the matter with the school’s child protection officer and filled in the ‘first response form’ so that social services could move Tim to a place of safety. Tim did not want to leave mum, he felt that he needed to be there to protect her he was worried that she would have a nervous breakdown, he also wanted to watch dad.

Mum and the medical profession made decisions about dad’s future he was finally put into hospital under the provision of the Mental Health Act, he was hospitalised for 3 months before being allowed home with medication and further therapy. Tim was allowed home again and he was able to focus again knowing that dad was being looked after, mum was less stressed and he was safe.

On his return to school in September, he was the first student I saw on the first day back, we discussed the summer holiday.

Tim had learned a lot about his family history in relation to mental health.

  • His biggest fear was for the future, would he have mental health problems as he got older?
  • If he had children could they, would they inherit the condition?

Tim has left school now he took his GCSEs and was successful, gaining A-C grades in 8 subjects he is at a further education college doing A levels in ICT and languages, he would like to go to university to study computer science.

Over the years I have worked with many children like Tim, each individual child will manage this experience differently some are carers to their parents, these children may have poor attendance, this in turn affects their learning, or their relationships with their teachers and their peers. Others display emotional and behaviour issues, such as ongoing conflict either with teachers, their peers or both.

Children do not particularly want teachers or their peers to know what is going on at home, through fear of being judged.

For some, school is their only respite, it is their safe heaven because they have another focus and can be a child again for a short while before home time.
There are many Tims in schools through out England, some are known, others are not.

At the beginning of this article I asked four questions I have give some answers to the first three, I would be interested in readers’ answers to the fourth question:

How can schools support children whose parents have mental health issues?

Paula Spencer

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