'We need to educate parents about mental health'

Parents' mental ill health can have a huge impact on children – they need to understand wellbeing, says Natasha Devon

Natasha Devon, Oxbridge, Contextual offers, A level, Disadvantaged pupils, exam system

This month saw the launch of a petition by UK charity Our Time (formerly the KidsTime Foundation) called "Being Seen and Heard" and supported by MPs across parties. Its research shows that parental mental illness as one of the "10 most powerful sources of toxic stress in young people and part of the cause of problems such as substance misuse and behavioural issues". Furthermore, evidence shows that 70 per cent of children whose parents have mental ill health go on to develop symptoms of mental illness themselves.

Our Time is calling for children whose parents are affected by mental health issues to be identified as a vulnerable group and given early help, such as that provided by the charity. This is an excellent idea – young carers are already on the radar of the Department for Education as being particularly at risk, yet it does not seem that children whose parents are living with mental illness have been fully acknowledged within that group.

As well as this, however, something needs to be done to target adults directly, and that’s a much trickier proposition, often involving a generation whose attitudes towards mental health is very different from that which we have worked so hard to foster in schools.

Children 'more open about mental health'

Today’s teenagers have grown up in a culture in which mental health has been discussed far more openly and accurately than in years gone by. The notion that depression and anxiety disorders exist and are just as "real" and impactful as physical illness is, in general, entirely unremarkable to them. They often request lessons on the less discussed aspects of mental illness – OCD, bipolar disorder and personality disorders, for example – and information on the facets of mental health that aren’t categorised as mental illness but impact their everyday lives, such as academic anxiety. This would indicate that, despite scant resources and funding, schools are doing a great job in delivering basic mental health education.

There is, however, a gigantic gap in understanding between the generations: often, when I work with pupils during the day at a school and then speak to their parents in the evening, my task is one of bringing parents up to the level of understanding that their children have already reached. Stigma is still rife – I speak to pupils whose teachers suspect they have an anxiety disorder or are on the autistic spectrum and whose parents refuse to take them to a professional for diagnosis, fearing what it would mean for their future prospects. It’s a strange dichotomy. 

As a campaigner, it’s much easier to target children than adults. In schools, one has a captive audience. If I advertised one of my talks at my local town hall, only those with a pre-existing interest would show up. And, of those that did, they would have overcome the fear that to attend a discussion on mental health is a tacit indication that there are "problems at home".

One of the reasons I co-created "Where’s Your Head At", a campaign calling for a change in law so that the mental health of British workers is better looked after, is because so many young people were asking me for advice on how to look after their parents’ psychological wellbeing, or how they could "explain" mental health in the terms they understood. It seemed ludicrous to me that they should think that was their job.

Our 200,000-strong petition was delivered to Downing Street on 8 October and will be debated in Parliament later in the year.

As well as supporting those young people who are caring for parents with mental illnesses, we need to get to the root of the issue: the parents themselves. It seemed to me that workplaces were a good place to start.

Natasha Devon MBE is the former government mental health champion. She is a writer and campaigner and visits an average of three schools per week all over the UK. She tweets @_natashadevon. Find out more about her work here

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