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How To Help a Parent with Mental Health Issues
Moving back in with parents during lockdown isn’t easy, especially when one is struggling with mental health issues, we spoke to Restless Readers about their experiences…
Often when we talk about mental health, we’re speaking about the impact mental health issues have on young people. Yet in 2018, deaths by suicide rose by 10.9 per cent, with the highest suicide rate among men between the ages of 45-49. One in six working adults in the UK suffers from mental health issues with over 75 per cent of Londoners stating that they have anxiety of some sort.
Mental health may be a more familiar conversation between millennials and among generation Z, but the mental health pandemic does not discriminate when it comes to age.
Many of us are living with parents who suffer from mental health issues that alter and affect our daily lives. So many of our homes have become a place where we are navigating our parents mental health as well as our own.
And now in the middle of a global pandemic and lockdown, many of us have gone back to living with parents who are suffering from mental health issues. Vita Minds, a free NHS mental health psychological talking therapy service provided by Vita Health Group, has released new research revealing that 63 per cent of people in the UK are feeling anxious about Covid-19, with more women than men reported to be anxious about the virus (68 per cent of women, as opposed to 57 per cent men) which can, therefore, trigger other mental health tribulations.
What has historically gone unreported is the state of mental health of those who are parents, especially mothers. Universally, women are expected to just get on with it and this method of thinking then becomes dangerous when it comes to mental health. Mental health then becomes a ‘female issue’ and with underrepresentation of women in the research fields behind mental health, it means research is always underfunded, under researched and missing integral information. Even if women are more likely to have a mental health disorder than men, and are twice as likely to be diagnosed with anxiety related issues.
So we’ve spoken to our Restless Readers on their experiences with living with a parent with mental health issues during the lockdown. All names have been changed for protection and privacy purposes.
For student Taya, unlike many other tight-knit ethnic minority families, she was encouraged to move out by her extended family when gaining her place at university. As her parents are dependent on her and her older sister for computer literacy and as “emotional crutches”, moving away was a way for Taya to gain some normalcy while granting her parents independence.
Yet for lockdown, Taya has moved back into her family home, meaning along with the help of her older sister, she’s having to navigate her mother’s depression and (suspected) bipolar every day. “Since lockdown, with the nature of my mum’s mental health and her huge highs and lows, it has been a complete rollercoaster. When my mum’s depression gets bad, it’s encompassing of all our energies, especially for the daughters in our family.”
Noting that her father is “non-patriarchal” and “is happy to do the domestic tasks such as cook and clean and happy to be at home,” this doesn’t remove some of the archaic thinking in her household. “Me and my older sister have always been taught to be damage control and to make sure there’s always food on the table and to always protect my brother from my mum’s mental health.
Me and my older sister have always been taught to be damage control and to make sure there’s always food on the table and to always protect my brother from my mum’s mental health.
“My mum’s view on boys — and it’s a very common theme in our family — is that men don’t have the emotional capacity to deal with mental health issues. That daughter can deal with it because that’s ‘how God makes women’ and [her son] doesn’t deserve to suffer like that. We all live in the same house but my brother doesn’t know half of what’s happened with Mum’s mental health”.
In Lucy’s home, everyone is aware of their mother’s depression and bipolar disorder yet the responsibility still largely falls on her, as the eldest of seven siblings. Her mother was hospitalised two years ago, so Lucy is relieved that lockdown has happened during the end of a series of difficult episodes.
On the other hand, the lockdown has brought its own set of mental health problems. “Usually, it’s her confidence that’s the issue. It can get too much for her to leave the house and do tasks but now it’s a lockdown, that pressure has been removed from her as we’re only leaving the home to do the grocery shop, especially as both my parents are ‘high-risk’.
“What we’re worried about is when the lockdown is removed, as she’s so comfortable staying at home, what the consequences will be then.”
Navigating the mental health issues of someone you are living with is challenging and parental mental health has its own set of conditions. You may find it difficult to be there for a parent who views your opinion as something naive or it may be that you are your parent’s carer. Psychotherapist and Clinical Lead at Living Well UK, Holly Beedon, advises anyone who is living with parents who have mental health issues, “to set healthy boundaries in place”.
Navigating the mental health issues of someone you are living with is challenging and parental mental health has its own set of conditions.
“If you’re working from home or you may not have the same structure under lockdown, with none of the same outlets, this may prove to be even more difficult. It’s important you look after yourself first and foremost and have a space in the house that’s yours. And make it a nice space to be. In addition to engaging with healthy relationships outside of the home”.
When asking Taya and Lucy what they do for self-care and preservation purposes, Taya said she’s putting her creative energy into renovating her room, “In order to make it a safe haven until I move back to university.
“I’m bad with self-care when it comes to face masks and baths and that sort of stuff but I’ll usually go to bed at 11 and stay up until 1 am watching Tik Toks and YouTube videos so I can recharge by myself. I also write in a journal every night to reflect on any conversations I’ve had or anything I could do better.”
Lucy, however, couldn’t think of how she was looking after herself. “I don’t usually have room and time to think about how to look after myself. I just go up to my room and be alone for ten minutes. I might watch some YouTube but really, it’s my alone time that’s self-care”.
Furthermore, just because you may not live in the same home as your parents with mental health issues, doesn’t mean you can’t still be trying to manage them.
For Sally, it’s a sea which separates her mother and her mother’s mental health. Yet because we can now video call instantaneously from afar, she is trying to deal with her mother’s severe anxiety. “My mother has called me multiple times hysterically. Over uncertainty, over loneliness, over separation. Like an unofficial helpline with no training, I have been on the receiving end of multiple phone calls, some life and death. I’ve talked her down from those metaphorical cliffs with the cushion of knowing I could get to her in 24 hours and that her friends would be over in a couple of minutes.
“I just have had to make it through those gruelling seconds. Lockdown has increased anxiety, not just in her, but in me. I feel a responsibility to her and am scared I wouldn’t be able to fulfil that.”
Lockdown has increased anxiety, not just in her, but in me.
The pressure can feel like constantly walking a thin line when living with a parent with mental health issues. When you’re having to always select your words carefully or be on the lookout for any signs of spiralling or a mental health related breakdown, this can eventually become exhausting and erode one’s own mental health. “It’s normal to start worrying about your own mental health and to self-diagnose when you live with a parent (or have a parent) with mental health issues; especially in lockdown when we’re all cooped up inside,” says Beedon.
“A self-coping strategy would be to make sure you’re doing acts that connect your mind and body. Whether that’s guided meditation or yoga. As therapy has also gone remote during Covid-19, it would be of interest to find your own therapist, as a way to look after yourself. Most importantly, you have to show compassion to yourself.”
It’s crucial to also remember that as much as our parents are a part of us, their mental health troubles are theirs. And yours are yours. It’s important to recognise that though we may come from them, it doesn’t mean our lives will mirror theirs. And the bigger lesson is that this is all practise, in order to be kinder to yourself in the long run.
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