Course helps children to cope with mental illness

A programme about coping with difficult family issues began in New Zealand but could be adapted for use in Scotland's schools, its creator tells Emma Seith

Mum wants to be a fashion designer. She doesn't seem to need much sleep and telephones people at all times of the day and night to tell them about her ideas. But this morning she doesn't want to get up. I have to see myself to school; she is not interested in designing any more - she doesn't want to see anyone or do anything."

This is the poignant and engaging start of My Mother Has a Mood Disorder, a story developed as part of the Children Understanding Mental Illness (Cumi) programme in New Zealand, designed to help children cope with parents who have a severe mental illness - in this case, a mother with bipolar disorder.

The programme was created by New Zealand-based clinical psychologist Bernadette Berry after mental health legislation required those working with people with a mental illness to involve the extended family. Other titles include My Dad Has Depression and My Dad Has Schizophrenia.

Children are referred to the programme - which runs after school for an hour and a half each week for eight weeks - by a mental health charity. Groups are split by age: six- to 10-year-olds; 11- to 14-year-olds and over-15s.

The course aims to help young people to understand their parent's condition, make them realise that they are not alone and give them ways to cope. But Ms Berry believes that it does not have to be run by a therapist and could easily be adapted for use by teachers in schools.

"In New Zealand, we found there were a lot of programmes developed for children who themselves had the difficulties - but not for children living in families where someone else had the problem," she says. Yet these are the children who are "largely invisible" to mental health services, she adds.

According to the Mental Health Foundation, children who have a parent with a severe mental health problem experience greater levels of emotional, psychological and behavioural problems than children in the general population.

Sometimes the genes they inherit make them more vulnerable to mental ill-health, but the environment they are raised in - where attachment issues arise because care-giving is inconsistent - can also play a part.

The books are used with the younger age groups to stimulate discussion, but teenagers are shown films such as A Beautiful Mind - in which Russell Crowe plays a brilliant mathematician with paranoid schizophrenia - as a starting point for discussions. They also address an important question asked by children: "Will I get this?"

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