Parenting With A Mental Illness

Originally posted Spring 2008
Areas of Life
Parenting can be one of the hardest things you will ever do (that is if you want to be a good parent), but imagine parenting with a mental illness. Due to the severity of you illness, your household is run quite differently than would a household without a mentally ill parent. For the sake of this essay we will focus on the mental illness of Bi-Polar Disorder. The parent suffers from many mood swings; you may be happy one minute and very upset the next, try being a kid and living in such conditions, never knowing what kind of mood your parent is going to be in from one minute to the next.

Parenting with a mental illness can be done alone or with help. That help can come in many forms: a spouse, extended family, or friends. The parenting will occur in the home and is a 24 hour job. You don’t get to stop being a parent just because your illness is affecting you pretty badly that day.

The goals of parenting remain the same no matter what mental condition you have. You want your children to grow up knowing right from wrong, and to be prepared to face the world. It may be hard to show them what the world is suppose to be like when your own world is so askew. The mentally ill parent also has the added goal of trying to keep their illness from affecting their children’s growth as much as possible.

When a parent suffers from Bi-polar Disorder they usually have to take many medications to control impulses. When you can’t control your moods it is very hard because you don’t mean to upset your children. After you have had a mood swing you feel very guilty as the parent, because you didn’t mean to get upset over something left lying on the floor, but it was out of your control. You always try to be aware of your mood swings but that doesn’t always work. You have to explain to the children why you may be happy with them and then get upset that they left something lying on the floor. You feel very guilty as the parent that you are sick and your children have to suffer right along with you. That guilt is a heavy load to bear. Children do tend to “feel out” how you are feeling that day; this is something that children learn at a very young age. That is a big responsibility for a child to be placed with. As your children get older it is easier because they can make you aware of how you are acting that day and then at least you try harder to be aware of how your are treating others.

Juridic Controls
There are no laws out there that state that parenting with a mental illness is illegal and there also is no definition of what a makes a person a good parent. It is basically up to the social workers to decide whether or not the parent’s mental illness affects their child’s safety. Once a person has lost their parental rights it is extremely hard to get them back. “Custody loss rates for parents with mental illness can be as high as 70-80 % and is higher for those parents with serious mental illness, compared to those parents without mental illness” (

Measure of Burdensomeness of the Load

Parents are continually confronted with their mental stability. Once mental illness is thrown into the mix everything is even more complicated. Parents with Bi-polar Disorder must constantly assess their mood and determine if they are looking at situations correctly. They also must adhere strictly to their medication regimen.

The loss of custody can be traumatic for a parent with mental illness, making it harder for them to regain custody of their children. Governments may intervene in a family situation in order to protect the children from abuse or neglect. When parents are not able, either alone or with a partner, to provide the necessary care and protections for their child, the state may remove the children from the home. The loss of custody may make the parents illness much worse. In the case of Bi-polar Disorder the situation may push the parent into a depression spiral in which it will be hard to get out of. The parent may stop taking their medication because what’s the point if their children aren’t there.

Removing children from their homes causes great burden on the parents, siblings, schools, and foster homes. Most of the time the parents don’t know where to start in getting their children back or think that it would be hopeless to try. Siblings especially have a tough time. They have been through everything from day one. The state tries hard to keep siblings together but sometimes that just can’t happen. The child’s schooling is usually disrupted, due to them having been placed in a foster home that is not always in the child’s original school district. Children’s grades also suffer, due to having to deal with what’s going on in their home.

Mental illness also plays a big role in divorces. Many lawyers will not even take on a divorce case when one of the parties has a mental illness, especially the mother. Mothers experiencing the mental illness, particularly those whose ability to maintain employment is compromised, are unable to afford the costs of divorce, child care, missed work, etc… Situations when supervised visitations are necessary are also a problem because supervisors are costly and hard to find.

Ways to Escape Control

One way to get out from under the juridic controls would be to stop going to the doctor with your mental problems if you plan on having children. If you stop seeing a counselor or a physician for your mental illness you may fall off the radar. If they don’t have knowledge of your problem it doesn’t exist. This is not really a safe solution but it might work.

If you are found to have competency issues it is best to follow whatever plan the state puts you on. This may include parenting classes, scheduled counselor visits, and staying on your meds. By following their rules you may be able to get out of “the system.” Granted you are in essence still under juridic controls for the time being but you would have the goal of eventually proving to them that you no longer need that control.

“The major reason states take away custody from parents with mental illness is the severity of the illness, and the absence of other competent adults in the home” ( One way to counteract that particular consequence would be to invite another adult to live with you. Extended families are a good example of escaping the juridic control of needing a competent adult in the home. If you have a lot of relatives living together and helping each other out odds are that one of them will be found competent.

Revised, Fall 2008

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