Parenting with a Mental Illness

Parenting is a tough job, but parenting while you cope with a mental illness presents extra challenges. Follow these tips to help prioritize your mental health.

The switch is almost instant when you become a new mom or dad: your child becomes your top priority, your focus, your world.

But while you’re swept up in late-night feedings, chasing around a toddler or running to and from soccer practice and play dates, it’s not uncommon to find that your own needs aren’t being met –especially when it comes to mental health.

“Parents really work hard to prioritize their kids and what their kids need,” says Danielle Nicholls, infant mental health supervisor with Starfish Family Services. “What that means for most parents is that they put their own needs on the back burner.”

Despite parents’ best intentions, this mindset can backfire.

“It’s sort of like the airplane analogy where you have to put on your own air mask before your child’s in order to help them effectively,” she says. “We find the same thing here. Parents who can prioritize their own mental health and stress management needs can really do a better job of parenting and managing their own stress levels.”

Starfish Family Services, based in Inkster, is a nonprofit agency that offers mental health services for children and adults. Interventions geared specifically toward parents include the Baby Power program for moms and Fraternity of Fathers for dads, both of which help parents manage stress, improve their relationships and get connected to additional resources.

Getting help is critical for anyone with a mental illness. For parents, delaying treatment can affect the entire family.

“It can have a really negative impact on themselves, on their own functioning both at home and at work. It can also really damage parent-child relationships if parents aren’t getting the support that they need,” Nicholls says. “It’s hard to take care of someone else if you have a lot of unmet needs yourself. We really focus on getting parents the support that they need.”

If you’re a parent who struggles with a mental illness, consider the following tips to help you make your mental health a priority.

Know that your health matters. “Recognizing that it can and should be a priority is a big deal for parents,” Nicholls says. “A lot of times parents feel like, ‘I’ll be OK, I’ll deal with this later.’ It’s OK to put yourself first sometimes and take care of your own needs.”

Cover the basics. See your health care providers on a regular basis and schedule a visit when you have any new concerns. Getting enough sleep and following a healthy diet are also helpful.

Find time for treatment. There’s no such thing as “too busy” to take care of your mental health. If you need to get back to therapy or a support group, but can’t find the time, seek out providers with flexible hours and ask local mental health agencies like Starfish what they might offer that fits your schedule.

Take a breather. Don’t feel bad about taking time for yourself – whether it’s a few hours at a coffee shop or a few minutes while the kids watch TV. “I really talk with parents a lot about finding whatever time you can, even throughout your day, to find a few minutes,” Nicholls says. “It’s OK to give yourself a time out.”

Ask family and friends for help. “We try to link families with their own natural support systems as much as possible. Those are the people who are going to have your back when you need it at the end of the day,” she says. “I think sometimes it can be hard for parents to ask for help from anybody. You want to look like you’ve got it all together. These are the people who know you and can help you the best.”

Whether you’re a new mom struggling with postpartum depression or a father whose anxiety is becoming too much to handle, there’s no shame in needing help.

“It’s not your fault, it’s something that happens and we know that early intervention and treatment is the most effective,” Nicholls says. “We can help with these concerns. They’re not going to go away on their own most of the time.”

Fortunately, treatment options are available and successful.

“I think some of the concern when people enter mental health treatment is this is something that I’m going to have to do for the rest of my life or will take a lot of time to undo. It’s helpful for people to know that a lot of mental health concerns have their own ebb and flow,” she says. “Treatment can be effective sometimes really quickly. All of these concerns, most of the time, have pretty good success rates for people who get to the intervention.”

Most of all, parents with a mental illness should know they’re not alone.

“The more that parents can hear from other parents that have been through this too and this is what helped or didn’t help, that helps to take some of the stigma away,” Nicholls says. “We know that lots and lots of people, including parents, struggle with mental health concerns. It happens everywhere. The more we can keep talking about that, the quicker the stigma will reduce.”


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