It can be hard for parents to know what to do when their children are experiencing mental illness, particularly as they get into adolescence and young adulthood. Research indicates that how a parent responds to their child’s mental health diagnosis can have an impact on the young person. Mental health policy, in Australia and overseas, is also increasingly recognising the role that parents and carers can play in the wellbeing of a young person, as well as the need to give them support. However, there is little research into what parents actually do to support their children who have mental health diagnoses, and what effect these actions have. For the last few years, Dr Anne Honey, senior lecturer at the University of Sydney, has been researching just that.
For her post-doctoral research, Dr Honey conducted in-depth interviews with both parents of young people, aged 15 to 24, with mental health diagnoses, as well as young people themselves, to better understand some of the actions that parents undertook for their children.
“It was actually amazing how many different types of things parents did. I don’t think a lot of people realise how complex it is and how many different things parents are actually doing to try and support young people, with varying levels of success, but they try lots of things. And young people reported these things as well, not just parents,” said Dr Honey in an interview.
Her research found that even though parents reported a wide range of different strategies, there were particular categories of actions that parents undertook. There were four areas in which parents supported their children and tried to influence their child’s experiences: appropriate treatment; positive activities and actions; positive thoughts and emotions; and an ordinary life.
Strategies supporting appropriate treatment might have included making appointments with health professionals, paying for treatment, transporting the young person or providing a history to health professionals. Things that promoted positive activities would be things such as praising positive behaviour, like exercise, or using their authority to make the child go to school, or not drink alcohol. Parents might have promoted positive thoughts of feelings in their child though proving happy experiences to look forward to, like holidays and treats, changing the home environment to be less stressful through avoiding conflict or managing siblings, or even sharing their own experiences of mental health issues. Parents also took action to support their child in having as ordinary a life as possible, through things like treating the young person normally, as they would their other children, explaining the situation to teachers or other family members when needed, and keeping the diagnosis from others to protect their child in other situations.
“Because [parents] used a lot of strategies, if they saw improvement in the young person, it was very hard for them to say which of the strategies they were using, if any, were working, because, of course, they were also seeing health professionals and doing other things as well,” said Dr Honey.
“A lot of the strategies they used were also quite long term, things like trying to make the person feel loved and telling them that they were valued in the family. They did it to raise the young person’s confidence and self-esteem but of course, that’s such a long-term thing. Who knows if it’s going to work in the short-term?”
Some of these methods that the parents in the study reported using may already be familiar to others with children who have mental health diagnoses. However, since there has been limited research focussed specifically on cataloguing and analysing these actions, a more informed understanding is important in order to learn from what parents do to help and what works.
“We looked at what’s influencing what parents are actually doing and there were essentially two things: what they knew, or what they believed about mental illness or about the young person’s situation; and then their ability to actually put the strategies that they thought were the best into action,” said Dr Honey.
“Some of the parents had experienced their own mental health problems or had in their family…others had absolutely no idea so it was a very steep learning curve for them. I do think that the ones who knew the most at the start were the ones who had people in the family who’d also experienced mental health problems. What people are getting from the media, it’s not enough. I guess it’s never going to be enough, is it? You’re not going to pay attention to that unless it’s affecting you.”
What parents actually do, where they get their strategies from and what really works are all things that Dr Honey is continuing to examine in her work. She is working on collecting more data to continue studying the strategies that parents put in place to support young people.
“The parents have got to get information from all different sources and then put it together to work out what to do in their very specific situation. What we’re hoping is that this [new research] will be another great source for parents to consider when making their decisions.”
Currently, Dr Honey and her team are taking submissions for a survey to further understand what strategies parents have used, and what they feel has helped.
“[We] took those strategies that we’d identified and put them into a survey to try and found out, on a larger scale, which ones are used most and which ones people find helpful,” she said.
Dr Honey is hoping that her new research will help clarify some of those questions and concerns, providing some further insights that might help parents support young people.
“The main part of it, really, is about which strategies do parents actually find helpful under different circumstances so are there some strategies which are more likely to be helpful for a young person,” she said.
“And then also being able to split that up into strategies more likely to be helpful with people who fit into that younger age bracket instead of the older age bracket, or does it differ between cultural groups or diagnoses, all the different things that influence how a young person might respond to what the parents are doing.”
Ultimately, increasing those insights into what strategies parents use and how they work can help parents be more empowered when supporting a child with a mental health diagnosis. With the current lack of dedicated research into those actions, Dr Honey’s research can help put into concrete action what we already know: that parental support can have positive benefits for young people experiencing mental illness.
“There’s a lot to explore in that data but what we’re hoping to be able to do is to use parents’ own experiences to be able to let other parents know that these are the sort of strategies that others in a similar situation to you have found helpful,” Dr Honey said.
To participate in the current survey, visit: https://redcap.sydney.edu.au/surveys/?s=PDNWW8TPP8
Honey, A., Chesterman, S., Hancock, N., Llewellyn, G., Hazell, P., Clarke, S. (2015). Knowing What to Do and Being Able to Do It: Influences on Parent Choice and Use of Practices to Support Young People Living with Mental Illness. Community Mental Health Journal, 51(7), 841-851. [Online]
Honey, A., Alchin, S., Hancock, N. (2014). Promoting mental health and wellbeing for a young person with a mental illness: Parent occupations. Australian Occupational Therapy Journal, 61(3), 194-203. [Online]