Supporting mothers with mental illness

Jen Hargrave
A new study has found many parents with mental illness do not get the support they need. Many fear losing their child. Kate wants to have a baby. But she is worried about what would happen if she got sick. Anj did not get the support she needed after she had her son. But now she runs a playgroup for parents with a mental illness. The women in the group help support each other. There needs to be more parenting services and support. People also need to be told about what services are available.
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Jen Hargrave on 25/05/2011
A mother hugging her young child

Parenthood can create big changes

Anj is a mum who lives with mental illness. No matter who you are, parenting can be pretty harrowing, Anj says. You can be hard on yourself and judge yourself.

Anj would have liked more support as a first-time mum. Mental illness is not as easy for everyone to understand as, say, a broken arm, says Anj. If you are isolated you don't get the opportunity to share parenting experiences.

Big changes

SANE Australia recently released a study about support for parents with mental illness. SANE surveyed 122 people who had used mental health and parenting services.

The research confirmed that pregnancy and parenthood can create big changes. Those changes can bring both joy and stress. The study found:

  • Almost three in every four expectant mothers were not supported to plan for the impact parenting could have on their mental health
  • One in every two people surveyed feared losing custody of their child
  • One in five considered relinquishing their baby.

Kate's story

Kate has always wanted to have children. I got diagnosed with bi-polar when I was 18, Kate says. Soon after my psychiatrist said I should never have children. I cried. Some doctors have since said maybe I can have kids one day.

Kate has now been in a serious relationship for three years. But no-one will sit down and help me think about the options, she says. What would happen if I get sick? What would be the point in having a baby if I just had to give it away? It's scary and just so hard to know what will happen.

Fiona's story

Fiona was very worried about what was going to happen after she had her baby. She was worried about how I would cope if my illness worsened. I didn't know what to do about my medication. In fact I got conflicting information.

More than half of respondents in the SANE study received inconsistent advice regarding breastfeeding and medication. Practical help for new parents, like extra home visits or childcare, was not offered to the vast majority of respondents.

Anj's story

Anj is now a peer educator for mothers with a mental illness. Her son was born in the 1990s. I wasn't offered any specialist parenting help, Anj says. I tried a mainstream playgroup once but I didn't go back. I was anxious I would be judged for having a mental illness. I've had periods in time when I've had to go into hospital. I couldn't be with my son.

New mothers are now referred to Anj's playgroup for parents with a mental illness. The kids are aged zero to three, she says. It's fairly relaxed. We have songs and games and snacks. It's every bit as fun as a playgroup can be. But there is also the scope to have serious, open conversations. When new women start in the group you see them get more and more relaxed. They build up friendships. Then they support new women.

Anj says she is open about her own experiences as a mother with a mental illness. That's a strength I bring, she says. It helps others to be open about their own experiences. To have child protection come around is stressful. To have your kids visit you in hospital is stressful. It is very comforting to share those experiences.

More practical support

Anj says there was little support available when she had her son. I found it daunting going to mainstream services, she says. I wanted to get involved with this playgroup because I recognised it as something I would have liked as a new mum.

Anj says families need more practical support. People are starting to see that things like the playgroup are needed, she says. They are starting to see peer leaders and client involvement as a good thing. It's not like going to see a social worker or a psychiatrist because it's not just about the mental illness. It's also about being a mum and sharing parenting experiences. I'm deeply satisfied that my role has had a positive effect on the group.

Improving support

SANE makes 4 recommendations about how to improve support for parents. They are:

  • Professionals providing maternal care and mental health care need to work closely together. Services should be coordinated
  • Health professionals (especially GPs and case managers) need education to help parents plan in case of illness in the future
  • Guidelines on parenting and breastfeeding with a mental illness need to be developed and given to health professionals. The information and advice they give needs to be consistent and evidence-based
  • Available parenting support needs to be better promoted. All health professionals in contact with parents need to be made aware of services and resources.



Readers comments (1)

Dear Kate,
Hi my name is Oliver Zeffert and I am from Holmesglen Moorabbin studying VCAL Senior and also a certificate 3 cookery course. Over the course of this term our Senior VCAL has studied a unit on those people in the community who deal with disabilities. This as provided me with an in depth and new found understanding of people who suffer from a multitude of various disabilities including autism, down syndrome, mental illness and sensory disabilities.
I found the most interesting part of Kate's story that I found on was the fact that despite the fact she had always wanted to give birth to a child and nurture its development, once she was diagnosed at age 18 with bipolar and was warned against becoming a parent by her psychiatrist due to her unstable mental state. This would be incredibly devastating news to Kate after reaching the adult age of 18 to be finally able to raise a child and then being barred from the possibility of giving your child a positive environment to flourish in. I also found it astonishing that Kate revealed to me the fact that there is very little support for the parents who may have their parenting abilities restricted by the fact that they suffer from mental illness.

My Father lost his wife several years ago and has been depressed since then and has failed to find a partner to console in and has been visiting a counsellor since the loss and I believe it would be incredibly difficult for a parent regardless of sex to raise a child in the way they originally would want to. When a parent has severe personal issues of their own to deal with it would be next to impossible to give your child the optimum upbringing.
Oliver Zeffert

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