Children of parents impacted with chemical dependency and/or mental illness face complex experiences, ranging from homelessness, isolation, neglect and stress to lack of support and understanding. This can include young children being faced with having to care for their parents as they struggle with their illness.
Because these children do not wear badges that say “My mom drinks all the time.” “My dad is depressed and can’t get out of bed.” “My parents didn’t come home last night,” etc., they are often labeled by our education system, faith centers and communities as “troubled,” “emotional,” “withdrawn,” “behavioral,” or “bad eggs.”
We should recognize that children of parents struggling with mental illness and chemical dependency are unsung heroes who live with a great deal of uncertainty and chaos. Behind the negative stereotypes and labels we often give children facing these barriers is a story and a truth that deserve a voice.
The organization I work for is one of only a few in this state that provide a continuum of services for mental- and chemical-health recovery, including services to support children of parents receiving care.
They often go together
In Minnesota, nearly one out of five individuals receiving chemical dependency treatment has a mental illness, and almost 40 percent of people served in the mental-health system have a substance-related disorder. Mental illness and addiction often go together, but many people who are mentally ill are not addicted. And many people who are chemically dependent are not mentally ill.
Children in troubled homes often blame themselves for their parents’ illness and find themselves trying to fix things so their parents “are happy again.” Here are some of the experiences children tell us about their parents’ mental and/or chemical illness and how it affects their lives:
“My mom goes in her room sometimes and when she comes out, her eyes look all weird. She doesn’t look like my mom.” — Adam, age 8
“I have to be the big sister and do all the ‘mom things’ for my little brother when my mom is doing those things (drugs).” — Maya, age 14
Family services are effective
We find that family recovery services are effective in helping children of parents with mental illness and/or chemical dependency. Here are some ways resiliency is built, and hope is restored by supporting families to recover:
“When we came to this group, Celebrating Families, I learned that other kids know what addiction is, too.” — Ellen, age 11
“I learned that drugs are bad, and they can hurt me.” — Michael, age 10
After eight years of being separated, due to the mother’s mental illness and addiction, which led to time in prison, Tiffany and her mom were reunited. They began family recovery services, which included a combination of chemical and mental health treatment, parenting classes, individual counseling for both mom and Tiffany, and family services.
“We’ve been doing work together, and now we can talk to each other and get along … I respect her as my mom, and she understands how I feel … we’re doing good.” Tiffany — age 15
Mental illness and chemical dependency affects millions of individuals and families per year, and only 10 percent actually receive the help and support they need to treat and recover from these illnesses.
Few receive the help they need
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), over 8.3 million children (nearly 12 percent of all children) in the United States, live with a parent who abuses or is dependent on alcohol and/or drugs. These children, labeled as “at risk,” are three times more likely to experience verbal, physical, and/or sexual abuse; and four times more likely to be neglected.
True healing for children of parents impacted by chemical dependency and mental illness occurs when children can understand that their parent’s illness is not their fault, and that their parents simply need help.
Nonjudgmental interventions, such as a teacher who listens and channels the child’s energy into learning, a therapist or counselor who offers hope, a minister who reaches out, a mentor who opens the door to new opportunities, a coach who offers an alternative, a volunteer who cares … can make a huge difference in a child’s life.
We must not close our eyes and ears to the realities faced by children living with parents who continue to struggle. Instead, we must read between the lines, recognizing that we have a responsibility to offer hope and support.
We can’t afford to lose more precious human resources to mental illness and/or chemical dependency. Let’s give children the help they need to succeed now. They are our future.
Heidi Kammer, MSW, LICSW, LADC, is the center director of Recovery Resource Center, a division of RESOURCE, and board member/governor representing Hennepin County with the Minnesota Association of Resources for Recovery & Chemical Health (MARRCH). She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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