A study conducted by McCormack (Newcastle University, UK) interviewed the (now adult) children of children of parents who had various mental illnesses (such as depression and schizoaffective disorder.

The researches found that the information they gathered could be distilled down into various main effects which were as follows :

1) Concerns about be loved, cared for and wanted, leading to feelings of loneliness, helplessness, abandonment and of being ignored.

2) Traumatization, stress and anxiety: some individuals in the study reported being neglected and abused and of living in an environment that was very frightening over extended periods of time and that this had significantly traumatized them, leading to severe anxiety and hypervigilance.

3) Feelings of having been betrayed, due to the failure of both parents to protect them and make them feel safe (in the case of the non-mentally ill parent, the sense of betrayal derived from this parent’s failure to protect them from the harmful effects of the mentally ill parent).

4) Guilt, sadness and self-blame: sadly, children living in abusive homes almost invariably, irrationally blame themselves for this abuse and falsely believe that they ‘must be a bad person’ which, in turn, leads to profound feelings of shame.

5) Parentification / adopting the role of child carer to the mentally ill parent. The child of the mentally ill parent may become ‘parentified’; this involves a role-reversal whereby the child is placed into the position whereby he is required to act as the parent’s parent.

6) Avoidance, development of strategies to stay safe and associated hypervigilance. Children in abusive homes learn strategies to keep themselves as safe as possible; these include: placating the patent, avoiding the parent (for example when the parent is drunk or experiencing a violent, psychotic episode). However, the price they pay for the development of such strategies is the need to be permanently on ‘red-alert’ and on the lookout for signs of potential danger (hypervigilance).

7) Development of empathy, compassion and resilience. Some individuals in the study reported that, as well as negative effects, their childhood experiences also had some positive effects, including helping them to develop feelings of empathy and compassion and, also, increasing their resilience. (When the experience of trauma ultimately helps the individual grow and develop as a person in positive ways, it is known as posttraumatic growth.)

8) Regarding school as a refuge (although children who are abused at home can be more vulnerable to being bullied at school).

9) Feelings of being stigmatized: for example, the child can feel terrified that their peers at school will find out that their parent has a mental health issue and, as a result, subject him to bullying, ridicule and mockery. Indeed, this can lead to irrational, profound feelings of shame. Also, the feeling of desperately having to keep their unfortunate home situation a secret exacerbated their sense of extreme anxiety.

9) Self-hatred transitioning into self-acceptance and wisdom: many of the participants reported that whilst, as children, their traumatic experiences had led them to feel a sense of irrational shame and self-hatred, as they became adults and developed a better understanding of how these experiences had adversely impacted on their lives they were able to develop a liberating sense of self-acceptance.


Approximately 68 per cent of women and 57 per cent of men with a severe mental illness such as schizophrenia or bipolar depression are parents.

(Source: Royal Society Of Psychiatrists).


Other research suggests that children living with a parent with mental illness may :

– fear that they themselves will one day go on to develop the same mental illness (some children do develop a similar illness and emotional problems).

– find it difficult to concentrate on their school work

– develop somatic illnesses

(Source: Royal Society Of Psychiatrists).


  • the child believes he is to blame for the parent’s illness.
  • the child develops a similar condition.
  • the child does not have a proper understanding of their parent’s illness.
  • the child is repeatedly separated from the parent because this parent is regularly being hospitalized.
  • the child feels insecure and unsure about his relationship with the mentally ill parent.
  • the child is being hit or otherwise abused by the mentally ill parent.
  • the child is having to act as the mentally ill parent’s caretaker or his having to care for younger siblings due to the parent’s mental illness.
  • the child is being bullied or teased at school because of their parent’s mental illness
  • the child lives in poverty
  • the child has a generally unstable life.

(Source: Royal Society Of Psychiatrists).



McCormack, Lynne & White, Sarah & Cuenca, José. (2016). A fractured journey of growth: making meaning of a ‘Broken’ childhood and parental mental ill-health. Community, Work & Family. 20. 1-19. 10.1080/13668803.2015.1117418.


USEFUL LINK: How To Help Children Of Mentally Ill Parents (an NSPCC website). CLICK HERE.

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).