Exposing lives of kids of mentally ill

DEENA COSTER
Last updated 12:07 22/08/2014

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Talking and listening to the children of people who have a mental illness is one way to make their needs more visible, according to a former Taranaki woman's research on the issue.

Researcher Bronte Jefferies said another way to support children was to address the negative stereotypes attached to mental illness in society.

These points, and others, were discussed at a public meeting held in New Plymouth on Wednesday night, when Jefferies shared some of her research findings with an audience of about 40 people.

As part of her cultural anthropology degree, Jefferies is studying the impact parental mental illness has on children and what can be done to support them.

She said there was a limited amount of research material available on the topic and the experiences of children affected were largely "invisible."

She said 50 per cent of people diagnosed with a mental illness were parents, but the needs of their children were often overlooked by professionals.

"It's still not routine for mental health workers or GPs to ask if their patients have children," she said.

Her research to date indicated children who lived with a mentally unwell parent defined their own mood based on how things were going at home.

"They frame everything in good and bad days."

She said although children were affected in many ways by their upbringing, the biggest harm was caused through the ongoing stigma associated with mental illness.

"Society makes us scared of mental illness and this has a negative impact on children," she said.

Jefferies said she knew through personal experience how hard it was to grow up in a family affected by mental illness but she wanted people to understand how unfair it was to jump to conclusions that it always resulted in negative outcomes. "Having mental illness as a parent doesn't make you a bad parent - it just means you have challenges sometimes," she said.

Jefferies said the peer support groups due to begin in Taranaki shortly were an effective way to give children and young people the support and information they needed.

She runs a similar project called Mind Space in Wellington.

Supporting Families in Mental Illness (SF) co-manager Lynne Holdem said a pilot programme for children and parents would start in New Plymouth in October, along with a programme for Opunake teens in term four.

Holdem said the motivation to address the gap in services for children in the region had been supported wholeheartedly by the community and was reinforced by personal stories, such as Jefferies' own.

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"Here was someone singing from the same song sheet as me but with the clear, true voice of a bellbird," she said.

To find out more information about groups call 06 757 9300 or email manager@SFTaranaki.org.nz.

- Taranaki Daily News

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