How to Deal with a Parent’s Chronic Mental Health Illness

Having a parent who has a chronic mental health illness can be painful and challenging. To help understand what type of impact a parent’s chronic mental health illness typically has on someone and for tips on dealing with a parent’s chronic mental health illness, I have interviewed therapist Janet England LCSW.

Tell me a little bit about yourself.
“I have been providing clinical social work services in the Boston area for 27 years. I specialize in the treatment of adults with issues ranging from mild anxiety and depression to personality disorders and major mental illness. The first twenty years of my practice I worked in psychiatric clinics and hospitals providing individual and family therapy to family members and patients with chronic mental illness. For the past 7 years I have been in private practice in Brookline, MA. I also specialize in Dialectical Behavior Therapy and mindfulness based treatments.”

What type of impact can a parent’s chronic mental health illness have on someone?
“The impact of a parent’s chronic mental illness on a person depends on a variety of factors, but the following impact is generally found in this population:

Fear, anxiety and shame that they may inherit the illness. Unlike heart disease or diabetes, society still stigmatizes people diagnosed with chronic mental illness like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. A person with a parent diagnosed with chronic mental illness often can’t help but internalize a sense of shame, that their parent is ‘defective’ therefore they must be ‘defective’ as well. Shame is an isolating emotion, therefore the person is at risk for social isolation that can lead to depression if the shame is not addressed.”

How can someone deal with a parent’s chronic mental health illness?
“Again shame, isolation and the societal stigma of are the main challenges people face when dealing with a parent’s chronic mental illness. The most important thing for a person to do is share their feelings about the situation with trusted friends, family members, and mental health professionals. Educating yourself as much as you can about the mental illness is also very useful. Learning self care skills is important. If I can emphasize one thing, it is not being alone with your feelings and thoughts about your mentally ill parent.”

What type of professional help is available for someone that is having a difficult time dealing with a parent’s chronic mental health illness?
“The majority of mental health professionals have experience dealing with chronic mental illness. Seeking psychotherapy can be very useful. Usually there is a grieving process that a person needs to go through in order to accept the painful reality that the person they are supposed to rely on for nurturing, caring, and protection has been unavailable and perhaps destructive and traumatizing to the person. There can be anger, sadness, guilt, as well as love for the parent. It is important to give voice to all these feelings in order the person to live the best life possible. There is also the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI), which provides support groups for family members with chronic mental illness.”

Thank you Janet for doing the interview on how someone can deal with a parent’s chronic mental health illness. For more information on Janet England or her work you can check out her website on

Recommended Readings:
Tips on Reducing Caregiver Stress
Caregiver Stress: Providing Care to Aging Parents
How to Cope with Aging Parents