The impact of children’s mental health problems on parents’ ability to work

Suzanne Alderson of Parenting Mental Health discusses how children’s mental health problems impact parents’ ability to work and how important finding support is.

suzanne alderson never let go book on table

 

When my 14-year-old daughter became depressed, anxious and suicidal, going to school wasn’t top of our list of priorities. In fact, as she struggled to leave the house, sleep or eat, it didn’t figure at all. Helping her to feel emotionally safe so we could keep her alive after sustained bullying became the focus of every waking moment.

That left me facing a distinct choice – my daughter or my work. At the time, my husband and I ran a marketing agency and, as the Client Services Director, I was responsible for our clients’ happiness. But while we faced the extreme uncertainty of our daughter’s mental health crisis, the only happiness I could focus on was hers.

When you care for a child with a mental health issue like anxiety or depression, being your usual, reliable, organised self becomes increasingly difficult. You are consumed by the situation. Not knowing what you’ll wake to or whether your child will be able to go to school that day adds an unseen and unspoken layer of stress that most people don’t live with or understand.

The ever-present worry about your child’s wellbeing and what-ifs, coupled with responsibilities to your family and employer, to paying the bills, to juggling the present and the future, all take up your attention and ability to focus, show up and perform as parents would like. It might lead to you feeling you’re failing everywhere (believe me, you’re really not!) and impact your mental health too.

And if this is you, I see you. It’s why I moved away from marketing and started Parenting Mental Health, a compassionate community and charity to support isolated, desperate parents like me in 2015 and maybe you today, and wrote my book Never Let Go about ‘Partnering not Parenting’ your child through mental illness.

Parents need support

You’re not alone. We recently surveyed 1,300 parents in our community and found that 37% of parents needed to reduce their working hours to support their child whilst they were experiencing mental health problems and 27% of those we surveyed needed to either change jobs or leave employment altogether because of the need to look after their child.

But surely it’s not all on us as parents to manage this? I speak to lots of employers and see some really progressive workplaces who are including elements of our PMH Parent Pathway around flexibility, transparency, understanding and compassion – and not just as lip service, but as practical support and policies to help parents with flexible working, paid leave for appointments as well as skilling teams on what the impacts of this experience might be.

Workplaces need to understand and appreciate that it’s not that we don’t want to work, it’s that we sometimes can’t.
I ended up taking eight months off work, going in for occasional meetings and feeling completely conflicted about where I belonged. It was during this time that I decided to start the judgment-free, supportive space that Parenting Mental Health offers, as well as courses, free Listening Circles, Peer Mentors and talks from specialists.

As my daughter finishes her degree this year after two years out of school battling depression, I want to leave you with a reminder that this will pass. The biggest gift you can give yourself and your child is to reduce the amount of stress you’re under; find people who get it and can support you and stop the talk of failing. This extraordinary experience is hugely challenging, but there are gifts in it too if you can embrace them – you’ll become the best negotiator, gain
huge personal insights and confidence and build an understanding with your child that is priceless. And that’s what really matters.

*Suzanne Alderson is the founder of community and charity Parenting Mental Health with a mission to support one million parents by 2026. She is the author of Never let go – How to parent your child through mental Illness.



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