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the loneliness + trauma of coping with the mentally ill

By Sian Watkins

They give exemptions to VCE students who break arms and legs, but not to boys whose mothers slash their wrists with cheap, blunt kitchen knives and who wake their sons at night to tell them they have overdosed.

James, studying for his final-year VCE, lives in a big country town. his mother has bipolar disorder and he has spent most of the past two years alone in their housing commission home while his mother has been in and out of hospital.

She cut her wrists in the last school holidays; he later cleaned the knife. After school, he cooks in old aluminium sauce pans, washes up, then he studies.

He is alone for most of the day, and angry, and most of all, exceedingly lonely.

James is one of more than two million children, adolescents and adults in Australia with a mentally ill parent.

A new group, the National Network of Adults and Adolescent Children who have a Mentally Ill Parent, is trying to show how traumatic, damaging and isolating it can be for such people, and to persuade the states and the Federal Government to start helping them.

The network's convenor, Mr Paul McKillop, says many children of mentally ill parents grow up believing that they are somehow responsible for their parents' troubled life.

And their needs, subsumed by their parents, are often not met.

Mr McKillop's voluntary network would like to see two specialist workers assigned to each health area (there are 22 in Victoria) to counsel family members and coordinate self-help programs.

James' parents separated when he was three and every time his mother went to hospital he stayed with relatives or foster families. He spent nearly a year in an institution. He remembers being small and his mother waking him and his brother to pray. "Another time she assumed we were dead and then she went away (to hospital) again."

"The problem is, when she's at home, is that there's very little for her to do," he says. "It is very difficult for most people who are unemployed but at least they have their sanity to keep them sane."

James doesn't have the time or money to take the train or bus to see her when she's away. He wanted to leave her once, to go to his father on the other side of the state, but her doctors told him such a move would do her no good.

"Mum's got manic depression, or bipolar disorder. Though I call it polar disorder; she doesn't swing between two extremes, she's just moderately good or bad. I know I'm supposed to be understanding and helpful but it's very hard. I really don't want to be a parent in any shape or form. I am resentful."

Copyright 2002 Sian Watkins

trapped in the hell of their parent's suffering

By Julie-Anne Davies

The physical damage is all too obvious; the girl's legs and arms are swathed in bandages to protect her badly burnt limbs although her raw, blistered toes provide a clue to what lies beneath.

The invisible scars are more elusive, they reveal themselves when she sleeps.

Then, she relives over and over the moment when her already chaotic world became a nightmare.

"Carly", a name she has chosen for this story, came home from school one day last year and her mother, who suffers from schizophrenia, poured petrol on her daughter and herself and the room they were standing in and lit a match.

Carly, who is 14, spent 11 weeks in the Royal Children's Hospital with burns to 45percent of her body. She has had many operations and there are more to come. She is scarred for life and lives in hiding from her mother who, after being admitted to hospital after the attack, was released and is living in Melbourne.

The police have laid no charges despite urgings from Carly's father and health professionals.

The only protection on offer for Carly at the moment is a restraining order.

It is estimated that as many as one in five Australians suffers some form of mental illness, ranging from schizophrenia to depression. International research shows that children of parents with depression are eight times more likely to attempt suicide than other children.

According to the Victorian Department of Human Services, nearly 20 per cent of notifications received last year concerned children whose parent or parents suffered from a mental illness. These children are often the invisible victims of mental illness.

Their experience translates into hidden feelings of anger, rage, fear, isolation, humiliation, loneliness, guilt and profound sadness.

Trying to figure out why it happened is obviously something that consumes Carly. Although she's come a long way since that day last September, it is still too soon for her to give up her own sense of guilt about her mother's actions.

"I wore my hair in a pony tail that day, maybe that was it because, you know, I don't usually do that," she reasons. "At first when I was in hospital I couldn't think about what my mum did to me but then the dreams started," Carly explains slowly, guarded in her answers, wary of the intrusion yet desperate to be heard. "Now I do think about it and I find it hard to forgive her, although I know she is sick."

Asleep at night, Carly has faced the flames again and again. A measure of how far she has come since the fire is reflected in her most recent dream. "I dreamt about a bowl of petrol and in it, I just threw a match and it caught fire but the flames were just within the bowl, they didn't reach me."

Carly's childhood effectively ended when she was 10. That was when her dad moved out. From that time, Carly was her mother's protector, trying to keep their secret, keep them fed, keep her mother's medication going and keep herself safe.

She knew intuitively that her life was not like other girls. Her mum not only was different because of her illness, she looked different. And sometimes, she smelt. Carly did what many children in her position do, she retreated.

She had no friends, she and her mother lived in squalor and ate junk food. They were so obviously outsiders in their community. "My mum didn't teach me things I should have known and so I learnt the hard way," Carly says. "You know, matters of hygiene and stuff. I used to get stirred at school for being smelly because I just didn't know anything."

She remembers one occasion when she was 12; she accompanied her mother to the doctors. "She got upset and the nurses called the police and they came and took her away but noone told me so I was left sitting in this waiting room until finally I sort of figured out what had happened and I just went home and stayed with a neighbour."

Wasn't she scared being on her own?

"I just thought 'Oh well, I've got to look after myself' but, you know, I could also relax a bit too because mum was in hospital. The worst thing was not knowing what she'd do next and I guess it gave me a break when she went away to hospital."

Another time when she was in primary school, her mother threw a table at her. She spent the night in her room waiting for morning so she could escape to school.

Protective services was called in because that time the evidence of her mother's abuse was plain; Carly's face was black and blue. It wasn't the first time child protection had received notifications about Carly.

According to documents seen by The Sunday Age, there had been at least five other reports. On at least one of these occasions abuse had been substantiated but the authorities decided Carly should remain with her mother.

Support services were introduced, Carly's mother was given her medication by injection in an attempt to stabilise her condition. The adult mental health services did all they could to keep Carly's mother at home with her daughter.

But then the abuse was too bad. She was sent to live with her father. A confidential court report written at the time stated: "It is sad when a 12-year-old child has to carry the responsibility of an adult and that her parents don't allow her to be a child."

Four months later Carly went back to her mother. While it is worth questioning the welfare authorities' decision to send her back to her mother's care, Carly's reasons are more understandable. "I didn't think she'd hurt me again, but she did," she murmurs pointing to her bandaged legs. "And, I went because I was worried about her being on her own."

It is a statement that lays bare the intolerable responsibility many children with mentally ill parents shoulder. The parent/child roles are reversed to such a degree that children often convince authorities they are coping. Sometimes the authorities do not take much convincing, says Paul McKillop, the convenor of the National Network for Adult and Adolescent Children of Mentally Ill parents.

The son of a mentally ill woman, McKillop has been waging a lonely campaign for years to convince government that the children of the mentally ill need their own support services. The emphasis of existing mental health services - and there are many - appears to be on getting the ill parent well, not on the residual damage being suffered by the child who has become the defacto parent, McKillop says.

"These children are not going to have it easy, but they deserve to have a few cushions put under them," he says. "I often hear, 'if we could only get rid of the stigma regarding mental illness everything would be better'. No, I'm sorry. crap. Mental illness is not going to go away even if you could take away the stigma, the effect on these kids would still remain."

McKillop managed to convince the State Government to give the group a computer, which sits in his suburban lounge room. Every night he comes home from work - he is a counsellor - to read the 50 or so e-mails the group receives daily from the children of the mentally ill.

They contain things like this: "She's cunning, you know. She took us by the hand and led us to the car. She bribed us with chips and Coke and the pipe was connected to the exhaust but then Dad came home to collect some things he had left in the garage," the child of a schizophrenic mother wrote.

"Look we're not asking for better mental health services," McKillop says. "That's for other organisations to lobby for. I mean if mental health services ran barbecues and discos on Sundays none of the kids we come into contact with would go because they don't want to be caught up in the system that cares for their parent. They want to know their mum or dad is getting treatment but they need counselling services and respite where their needs are the most important thing, not anyone else's."

Copyright 2002 Julie-Anne Davies

No matter where you are in the world, please contact Mr Paul McKillop for information, support, advice, and local help at:

Convenor NNAAMI
NNAAMI
P.O. Box. 213
Glen Iris 3146
Melbourne
Victoria
Australia
T +61 3 98893095
E PMckillop@emis.com.au

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