(Thi article is an excerpt from my book, Crazy Was All I Ever Knew: The Impact of Maternal Mental Illness on Kids. I have used a pseudonym to protect the privacy of family members.)
Growing up with a mentally ill mother, I learned to stay under the radar—to avoid drawing attention to myself in my home and later in the world around me. This gave me a sense of safety. My mother’s behavior was erratic, and she displayed a propensity for unprovoked rages. Her mental illness was undiagnosed, never discussed among family members, and never disclosed to anyone outside of the family.
I fit the profile of an “invisible child.”
Often, parental mental illness goes undiagnosed. As reported in an article in Social Work Today, Joanne Nicholson, a clinical and research psychologist, notes, “The first problem [for children of mentally ill parents] is that their parents’ problems go unrecognized, so their needs also go unrecognized.” (http://www.socialworktoday.com/archive/052416p24.shtml)
It’s not unusual for parental mental illness to be ignored or brushed under the rug. Research shows that parents and children may keep mental illness in the family a secret due to stigma and shame, and parents may fear being reported to child protective services and losing custody of their children.
As it turns out, that fear is not unfounded. According to Child & Family Connections, a Philadelphia-based organization dedicated to improving the lives of families living with mental illness, as many as 70 percent of children whose parent has a mental illness are removed from their homes and placed in foster care.
My siblings and I never heard the word “stigma,” but it enshrouded us. In fact, stigma kept the family quiet about mental illness through generations. My grandmother suffered from depression, and every attempt was made to disguise her mental illness. When she was hospitalized for treatment, we were told she “went to the farm.” With my mother, the family perpetuated the cycle of stigma. My father no doubt experienced futility. As my husband sees it, my dad may have felt stuck: “What was he supposed to do? He had to go to work. If he got a divorce, what would happen to you kids?”
Most likely, other family members knew about my mother’s mental illness and were complicit in keeping it under wraps. I’m not certain if neighbors or others in the community suspected that my mother was mentally ill. My mother presented well in public—when she strayed outside the house to go to the supermarket, the fabric store, and church. I’ve learned that the ability to keep it together while in public view is not an uncommon phenomenon among parents with certain mental illnesses.
Mental health professionals say when no adult validates a child’s experience, it can cause the child to doubt his or her reality. Thankfully, I wasn’t plunged into that netherworld. By the time I was six or seven, I knew on my own that something wrong with my mother. I didn’t need an adult to tell me, but I did need an adult to help me. Nonetheless, my siblings and I were left to deal with my mother’s rampages on our own. We were unprotected from her erratic behavior during the most vulnerable periods of our lives.
Today, even when stigma is overcome and parents with mental illness receive treatment, their children’s needs often go unnoticed. Children are sometimes not told about their parent’s mental illness, and they are not asked how their parent’s mental illness may be affecting them.
Sometimes, the behaviors of kids can be misleading. Suzette Misrachi, an Australian mental health practitioner, points out that competent, well-functioning offspring or “super kids” of mentally ill parents risk having their needs overlooked because they don’t exhibit overt signs of trauma. For example, they may excel at school, participate in sports, and have friends, so their needs can fall through the cracks.(http://hdl.handle.net/11343/37852)
Fortunately, there is the opportunity for more children of mentally ill parents to get the services they need as a result of the screening of children for Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) by pediatricians; however, such screening is far from widespread.
Kids can be spared trauma. Not all kids of mentally ill parents experience trauma—notably, those who have supportive relationships with caring adults, exposure to positive experiences, and opportunities to develop effective coping skills.
I am the author of Crazy Was All I Ever Knew: The Impact of Maternal Mental Illness on Kids. My book combines memoir with research. My credentials include contributing articles to a Philadelphia daily newspaper on psychological, medical, family, and career issues. I was also an editor at a daily newspaper in Atlantic City. I live near a small seaside town in New Jersey with my husband Jack and our rescue dog, Maxie.