Medically reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 9/3/2022
It’s a fairly common Millennial and Gen Z experience: coming of age and slowly realizing that part of your childhood was rough because you were raised by a parent with mental illness.
Coping with mental illness as an adult is profoundly more difficult than we give credit for. And dealing with someone else’s mental illness is truly next level. But dealing with someone else’s mental illness as a child can cause serious issues, harm relationships and set children down the path of a more difficult life when they get older.
If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone by a long shot — mental illness affects one in five adults in the U.S., and it’s likely more common in households than we suspect.
But let’s talk about the present. Whether you’re the adult offspring of a mentally ill person or you’re watching a child struggle with someone else’s mental illness, trying to sort out a frustrating relationship can take a lot of work.
Before we dive into the action items, let’s talk about what that parent’s mental illness could have done and how it affects children generally.
Your parents’ mental health is one of the most important factors in your own health, happiness and well-being as a child. Consider the extremes.
A parent with great mental health education, empathy, love, happiness and a healthy attachment to you will see to your needs, understand those needs and provide you the best care they can based on those needs.
On the flip side, you have the extremes of mental health issues in parents.
Munchausen syndrome, by proxy, is a disorder in which a parent or caretaker begins making up illnesses, symptoms and diseases for a child that aren’t real, and then forcing the child to go through unnecessary treatment.
In between is a murky area with a strong correlation. There are many factors in determining how and to what extent a parent’s mental health affects you, but we do know that there is a strong link.
According to a 2021 study, there’s a strong correlation between a child’s mental and physical health and the mental health of their parent.
This study looked at more than 100 German parents with a psychiatric illness and the relative health of their children.
What researchers found was that a mentally ill parent can potentially impair a child’s quality of life in many ways — that a mentally ill parent is a risk factor for a child’s later mental health and happiness problems.
The first thing to remember about parental mental illness is that it’s not a child’s fault, nor is it their responsibility. If this was you as a child or as a teenager, you can rest easy knowing that it wasn’t up to you.
A parent’s first responsibility is arguably to their children, but you can’t provide the best care to your child if you’re not taking care of yourself, period.
As for the question of how to help, there are many things you can do.
As a child or adolescent, it’s best to seek help and support from members of your family and community — it shouldn’t be on your shoulders.
As an adult, however, getting them help can be your responsibility, and there are a few supportive ways to provide it.
First and foremost, you can simply voice support to your parents. Supporting them as they deal with disorders can have an incredible impact on their ability to succeed in treatment.
Learning about the condition they have can also help you moderate some of the conflict, whether it’s supporting them through a depressive episode, calming their anxieties or just nullifying the family stigma and associative stigma that an older generation has regarding asking for help.
There’s not much else you can do, frankly — you can’t prescribe medications, you can’t force them to see a therapist, you can’t force them to journal for their mental health. Trying to do so will result in conflict anyway.
The name of the game is positivity. Helping a loved one work through a mental illness in a judgment-free space, supported by strong familial relationships, is the best strategy for improvement.
Helping a mentally ill parent is not something you can do alone. Whether you have a medical degree or not, a parent’s mental health is not your responsibility and their illness is not your (or their) fault.
If you do want to help a parent with mental illness, the best course of action is to help them get help, either by a referral, through mutual support of friends and family or, in severe cases, through an intervention.
That said, the support you can offer during treatment can have significant positive impacts on your parents’ wellbeing, and if they’re willing to get treatment, being willing to support them can greatly improve the results.
But in this discussion of their mental health, it’s important to remember not to neglect your own.
The impact of mental illness on children is not something you should overlook — and even as adult “children,” your mental health concerns should still be put first. After all, how are you going to help them if you're not helping yourself?
Research suggests that your risk of mental illness is higher if your parents had or have one, and so in all of this commotion about their mental health, it’s important not to forget your own. That means taking preventative steps like taking care of your physical and mental health, but it may also include talking to a therapy provider as a preventative measure.
Experts also recommend a litany of self-care treatments, from spending time with yourself and your hobbies to engaging in other, positive relationships outside of the disordered family member dynamic.
Maintenance therapy is a great way to avoid becoming depressed, anxious or otherwise mentally ill — it’s the best way to moderate the effects of mood disorders before they crop up, and along with exercise, sleep and a healthy diet, it’s one of the best ways to maintain your own mental health.
We're here to talk about parents, but ultimately, adult children have a lot to contend with when their parents are in need of mental health services.
Children of parents with mental health conditions like anxiety disorders, depressive disorder, bipolar disorder and other mental disorders can get eventually have the same problems later in life if they don't utilize these resources.
If you're struggling to support a parent, it may be time to get mental health professionals involved.