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Parenting with a mental health problem

Explains difficulties you may face as a parent with a mental health problem, support available and suggestions on how to help yourself and your children.

Even if you do your best to manage your mental health, there may be times when you become very unwell and are unable to care for your children. It can be a difficult time to make clear decisions, so it might be helpful to think through what would need to happen in advance.

For example, it can be useful to:

Become aware of any patterns in your mental health

Tracking your mental health and identifying what increases your distress can help you plan to put extra support in place during pressured times. Some people may be able to identify clear patterns in their mental health, whereas for others it may feel a lot less predictable.

Ask yourself:

  • Does your mental distress increase in any specific circumstances?
  • Are there certain times of the day, month or year that typically increase your distress?
  • What are the main things that are hard to manage during times of increased distress?
  • What helps you when you are finding things difficult?
  • Which individuals or organisations can you turn to for extra support?

Reduce your responsibilities during times of illness

If you have periods when you are unwell or find it more difficult to cope, you may find it helpful to think in advance about what practical steps you could take to reduce some of your responsibilities during these times.

  • Try to organise extra childcare for your children, such as an after-school club, nursery or childminder. Perhaps you can ask a family member, friend or neighbour for help with childcare arrangements.
  • Explore if older children can use public transport to get to school or to after-school activities.
  • If you're in work, ask your employer if you can work fewer hours or work from home some of the time.
  • See if family members or friends can cook occasional meals for you and your children.
  • Try to find other adults who can help your children with their studies.
  • Ask for more general help from friends, family and any other sources of support you have, including looking into social care support.

Think about your support in a crisis

Talking to the people closest to you about how you would prefer to manage a crisis can be a good way to plan for the future. This could even prevent a crisis from happening. If it would be helpful to have a record, you could take notes of what you agree.

  • Identify how they can spot the signs of a crisis.
  • Explore how you would like them to help you.
  • Identify who should be contacted.
  • Talk through what treatment you would like.

There are also more formal ways that you can plan for times when it may be hard to make decisions. For more information, see our pages on advance statements and decisions.

Plan what you'll do if you become too unwell to care for your children

Planning in advance for times when you become too unwell to care for your children can reduce stress and worry about what will happen, and minimise any disruption to your children's lives. It is a good idea to plan the following with someone you trust while you are well:

  • Decide who will do what for your children.
  • Have a clear plan about how that will happen (for example, if your children will go and stay with them or if they will come to your house).
  • Discuss weekly routines and useful contacts.
  • If you are a single parent, it is particularly important to decide who will take over your role as the legal responsible parent if you are unwell.

Plan what will happen if you need to be admitted to hospital

If there is a chance that you may be admitted to hospital during a crisis, you might also find it useful to plan the following:

  • Check and write down visiting hours of local hospitals.
  • Find out whether there are facilities for family visits.
  • Decide whether you want your children to visit you in hospital or not, and arrange with someone to bring your children to visit if you do.
  • Explain to your children in advance that you might have to go to hospital and what will happen while you are there, to help them feel more prepared.

"It's like a juggling act – people keep saying I must take time to deal with my mental health but when the children need things it can be almost impossible."

Checklist and planning resources

Use this checklist to remind yourself of things you have tried and what helps:

  • I take positive steps to look after my mental health
  • I can ask for help if I need it
  • I am organised about daily parenting tasks and have a good routine
  • I have developed a support network I can rely on when I need to
  • I know who to ask to help me with day-to-day responsibilities if I need to
  • I have spoken to my friends and family about what to do if I have a crisis or need to go into hospital
  • I have an advance statement
  • I know what professional support is available for me if I'm not coping
  • I have spoken to my child about my mental health and they understand my condition
  • I keep a close eye on my child's wellbeing and they have someone to talk to if they are worried
  • I know what support is available for my child if they are finding it difficult to cope
  • I keep track of my child's caring responsibilities and make sure they aren't taking too much on.

This information was published in April 2019. We will revise it in 2022.

References and bibliography available on request.

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