Supporting families managing parental mental illness: Challenges and resources

Michelle D. Sherman, Stephanie A. Hooker

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


Over five million children in the United States have a parent living with a serious mental illness. These offspring are at higher risk for developing mental health problems themselves due to a complex interplay of biological, psychological, and psychosocial factors. Life with a parent with psychiatric symptoms can be scary, confusing, overwhelming, and sad; children often blame themselves for their parent’s problems, find their parent’s behavior embarrassing, and struggle to explain the illness to their friends. Unfortunately, these children’s needs and experiences are often ignored by overwhelmed parents, worried family members and relatives, separate mental health systems of care for adults and children that often fail to coordinate care, and even well-intentioned health-care providers. Family medicine teams have an opportunity to detect and support these families in unique ways. We offer four recommendations for family medicine teams to help families managing parental mental illness including assessing functioning, treatment needs, and impacts on each family member; educating all family members about mental illness; instilling hope, noting the range of effective treatments for mental illness; and encouraging the use of supports and referral options. Providers can leverage family members’ strengths, work with community-based resources, and offer continuity to these families, as they struggle with an oftentimes chronic, relapsing disease that has ripple effects throughout the family system.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)361-370
Number of pages10
JournalInternational Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine
Issue number5-6
StatePublished - Nov 1 2018

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This paper was presented as a Clinical Practice Update at the 2017 Forum for Behavioral Science in Family Medicine in Chicago, IL. This annual conference strives to stimulate progress in the role of behavioral science in family medicine programs; it is sponsored by the Department of Family Medicine of the Medical College of Wisconsin and is endorsed by the Society of Teachers of Family Medicine. Participants in this session expressed high levels of interest in the topic of families impacted by parental mental illness. Several senior physicians anecdotally remarked that they had never thought about the experience of these children and were motivated to now assess this issue with their patients and educate their residents.

Publisher Copyright:
© The Author(s) 2018.


  • family medicine
  • family-based care
  • parenting
  • serious mental illness


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