Growing Up With a Mentally Ill Parent

Photo by Krzysztof Kowalik on Unsplash

Trigger warning: bipolar disorder, cancer, death.

Today’s article is in honour of a reader’s mum who had bipolar disorder and cancer. Sadly, she recently passed away. Sharing Kim’s experience is important to raise awareness about chronic mental health conditions and how it can affect children and families. 

This is for those who are in the same boat and for those who are healing. 

You are not alone.

What is bipolar disorder?

According to The Black Dog Institute, bipolar disorder is a chronic mental illness where people experience extreme mood changes. There is a manic phase (feelings of euphoria, very active) and depressive phase (feeling really low in mood).

Such symptoms can last a week or more and can affect everyday functioning, including work or family responsibilities.

People with bipolar disorder have 15 times greater a risk of suicide than the general population, accounting for up to 25% of all suicides.

Black Dog Institute Australia

Chronic mental health illness is a serious condition. Treatment is required and can be found through psychological support or medication.

The way bipolar disorder is experienced, varies from person to person. One form of treatment may work for someone where another may not have an effect.

Challenges children face living with a parent who have a mental illness

It is estimated in Australia, there are over a million children who live with one or both parents with a mental illness.

There are many challenges that arise in situations like these. Children essentially become a young carer. They take on responsibilities like cooking, cleaning, caring for young siblings and especially for the parent(s).

Children may ‘bottle up’ their feelings as it can be overwhelming. They may also feel it is not a problem when compared to someone who is mentally ill.

This can effect your concentration levels at school, you may withdraw from usual social activities or go out more often.

If you have ever experienced this, you may have felt like you did not receive the support you needed. You may even feel guilt for the way your parents are.

Challenges for parents who have a mental illness

Parents who live with a mental illness have their fair share of struggles too. Not to mention psychological hardship, they can also experience feelings of guilt, frustration, anger and confusion. All they want to do is help their family but chronic mental health conditions can be disabling.

If you are unaware of your parenting behaviour, you may recieve feedback from your children, partner or friends. It can be a shock and will hurt hearing those words, but know that it comes from a place of concern and love.

It is important to begin treatment and reach out if your parenting is being affected. After all, your condition affects not only yourself but also your family.

What about cancer and mental health? What are the effects?

Experiences of depression, anxiety and fear are common through cancer diagnosis and treatment. Not only is it taxing emotionally and mentally, but physically too. Frustration, anger and exhaustion are also common.

In a study done in the UK, researchers explored the survival rates of cancer patients with a mental disorder (depression and bipolar). Although not statistically significant, researchers found that the general wellness rates after cancer were reduced. A number of factors affected this, including living situation and external support.

Maryrose Mongelli, A social worker from Cancer Care, emphasised the importance of a multi-disciplinary team when caring for mentally ill cancer patients. Communication plays a huge role in successful treatment. Oncologists are not trained mental health practitioners so it is important to holistically approach cancer treatment.

Family and friends who have a loved one with cancer, may experience similar feelings of sadness and fear too. After all, mental illness and cancer not only affects the person, but those that love them.

I know someone with cancer. Is there support?

If you’re in Australia, there are multiple organisations out there to support you during this difficult time.

A list of links for support below. Please read the end of this article for more services.

You can opt to see a counsellor or psychologist if you need someone to talk to. Sometimes our feelings become overwhelming and we need to get it out. Please don’t feel ashamed for reaching out – it is a brave thing to do and a good way to process your emotions.

Another option is finding a local support group. Head to Google and search for “cancer support groups [insert city, state here]”. You can also visit a local cancer support or awareness organisation and enquire at the reception desk. You can also call for brochures or pamphlets to be mailed to you, if you prefer.

It is not your fault

Whether you are a parent with a mental health condition or a child in a household, it is not your fault.

You may have faced stigma and a lack of understanding from your school, friends or extended family. It can be an isolating situation to be in.

If you are caring for a loved one with a mental illness, extreme mood changes will naturally affect you. It’s important to strive for a balance life between caring and maintaining a life for yourself.

No one deserves to experience a chronic mental health condition. And children do not deserve to be neglected or deprived of a childhood either.

Look after yourself

As a young carer, it can be extremely difficult to think of yourself when you need to care for a parent, siblings and even hold down a job to pay bills. Please be aware that it can be just as tough as a young adult carer.

It is crucial that you try your best to maintain a life separate from caring. There are groups and resources out there if you are in need. A support group who understands what you’re going through can be a great option.

For many children and teens, it can be extremely confusing if you’re not sure what’s going on. Attending these groups can help you process your emotions. It can also aid your understanding about mental illness.

You are not alone.

It can feel like you are, but there are other people who have gone through it. There are people who are experiencing similar struggles like you.

Healing after a traumatic childhood

The road to healing can be a long one, especially if your loved one has a chronic condition. But it is imperative for your own mental health to heal what has hurt you.

In order to move forward, it is important to address any emotions you may have kept ‘bottled up’.

Finding a counsellor or even speaking to a trusted friend can be helpful steps toward healing. 

Sharing your story whether it is through word of mouth, video, podcast or in therapy is another way to honour your experience.

How do we talk about mental illness with others?

My Asian family and extended family didn’t talk about emotions or mental health at all. There were a few concerned discussions about others, but that was it. There was no education or follow-up of ‘how someone might be feeling’.

If you have grown up in a household like mine and many others, it can be difficult to speak up.

The best way to talk about mental illness is to simply start the conversation. Ask your parents questions. Ask your siblings what they think. Discuss these topics with extended family. Share how you feel often and encourage others to do the same.

Be the change you want to see.

You might find that your loved ones may have been struggling with the conversation all along. You might find that they loath talking about emotions. You might find your family deny any problem at all.

That’s okay. We all process and react differently.

The important thing is that you begin. You never know what could be shared and learned by talking about your experience.

Resources | Mental Health & Cancer


A letter from Kim in Honour of her mum 

My name is Kim and I am the youngest daughter of Katherina Sarellas. Everyone’s experiences would be different to my own. My sisters’ experiences alone would be different. But I feel like if I talk about it, not only does it help me, but I feel will help others feel like they’re not alone. I feel like the more we are open and honest then we are able to feel accepted and unashamed.

My mum recently passed away from breast cancer… She was so strong, and I witnessed this every day since she was diagnosed with breast cancer 3 years ago.

Growing Up

My mum had her good days and her dark days but more than most she had really dark days… As she was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder my whole life.

Being a small child and growing up with a parent who has a mental illness was a journey, but the only one I knew. I remember feeling sad and disconnected towards my Mum because I didn’t really have a Mum that could really take care of me.

There were moments where she would hug and kiss us, take us to the beach and parks…

Then there were times where we were woken up in the middle of the night to get in the car, being chased around the house. Not to mention staying in bed all day.

There were even times where we would be spoiled rotten and times where we had nothing to eat at all…

Throughout my life, I always have had conflicting feelings about how I feel about my Mum. I always felt like there was something missing from our relationship. She was mostly unhappy and when she was happy, I was always waiting for the shoe to drop. Putting my trust in someone was always hard to do, because of this.

For a long time, I thought there was something wrong with me. and growing up I thought I wasn’t normal. When I was eight, I thought for every good thing to happen and even worst thing would occur… I remember feeling like… “What is the point?”

I became quite numb and placid about life. I never spoke about it at the time and dealt with those feelings on my own. It was unhealthy and dangerous because it manifested. I became someone who was distrusting and I couldn’t be happy because I was always waiting for the shoe to drop. I am still learning, but as I got older, I slowly began to see that there isn’t something wrong with me.

It was challenging growing up with an absent/non-absent mum… I remember I always told myself that she will get better one day.

During high-school I remember seeing a counsellor who told me that it was not my fault… she said I needed to lead my own life, to help myself before I can help her. At this time in my life I emotionally shut off from my mum to protect myself from being emotionally abused.

I saw her every now and then. After My mum was then diagnosed with breast cancer. It was hard taking her to her appointments and watching her go through it, as it would be for anyone else.

She needed us more than ever… and it was hard. Especially because she was not there to nurture or care for me while growing up.

Despite this… She was in pain. She was scared, and especially scared to be all alone. I was going to be by her side as much as I could be.

I’ve opened up to people in my life and it has helped me connect and understand. You shouldn’t feel ashamed about what your going through, if you feel low. Have the courage to speak up about it because you are strong for showing the world your scars.

I understand now, the relationship I had with my mum… I love my mum. In the way that I know what she’s been through, how she has suffered. Life was unfair and never gave her a break. All I ever wanted was for her to be happy.

Overall, my relationship with my mum has given me wisdom beyond my years. There are things my mum could have done better, yes. I know my needs as a child were not met. But also, her brain physically works different than most.

For a long time, I felt guilty for feeling hurt and mad. But you shouldn’t feel guilty for feeling that way, because every child deserves a childhood.

During the Last Days

My mum still had the will power and strength to want to go home. We were up and down that hospital that whole week. She fought cancer with everything she had.

As I laid with her, nurtured her through this… I found myself forgiving her for everything.

I don’t know if she could hear me, I don’t know if she understood. But as I watched her sleep and stroked her arm… I let it go. I spent a lot of time thinking through past events but you can’t beat yourself up for something you can’t change.

It’s okay to be confused at times, it’s okay to feel ambivalent. But let it wash over, it will pass through. Throughout all this I have learned a lot.

My siblings and I have turned out as well as we have because we stuck together. We understand each other in a way no one else ever will. If we hadn’t experienced what we did…. I’m not sure we’ll be this close.

I have learnt through my parents marriage, and their mistakes, that I want something different, for my marriage one day, my relationships and my life.

It’s important that you surround yourself with people who show you the kind of love you need, and take a step back from those who don’t. You need to take care of yourself, for if I want to live a healthy and happy life, I have to work for it.

In the end, I determine my journey as do you.

*This blog provides general information and discussions about mental health and related subjects. The information and other content provided in this blog, or in any linked materials, are not intended and should not be taken as medical advice. It is not a substitute for professional medical expertise or treatment.

Announcement: I’ve started writing on Medium! Please head there for my latest posts! Thank you so much for your support~

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