What it's like to parent with mental illness

Parenting is stressful at the best of times, but what if you're struggling with a mental illness?

Anne Buist, professor of women's mental health at the University of Melbourne, said we were struggling to support women with severe mental health issues.

"Maternal suicide is actually the leading cause of maternal deaths," she said.

"We've managed to treat infections, we've improved our ability to bring blood pressure down, but we are still battling to get on top of these really serious mental health problems."

However Professor Buist said having a mental illness did not mean you could not parent; it may just mean you needed extra support.

"There's a fear of the stigma of being diagnosed with a mental illness, but bigger than that is the stigma of being seen as a bad parent.

"A lot of people think that it's the same thing and it's absolutely not."

Parenting can trigger mental health issues

Professor Buist has been working with women with mental health problems, who are pregnant or in the postpartum phase, for the past 30 years.

She said this was a high-risk period for women.

Women often either struggle with pre-existing mental health problems or the birth of a child can trigger past childhood traumas and experiences.

"For instance if your mum died when you were very young and you really had no-one taking over that role in a nurturing way, then you get a double whammy," the professor explained.

"You didn't have that role model, you missed out on that nurture, and you also don't have someone around now to help you out with the child.

"So these are the sorts of issues that come up for women with mental illnesses, as well as some practical things like side effects of medication making you very sedated."

Professor Buist said if a mother was struggling to deal with her own emotions it was then incredibly difficult to put the needs of their child first.

However she said there was support available within the maternal child health system which aimed to screen women for mental health problems and offer support.

"I do a lot of one-off sessions planning for pregnancies in women with mental health disorders so that they will be at the optimal physical and mental health."

What about dads?

Professor Buist said that for some fathers in a more traditional role, having a child did not change their lifestyle as much as for the mother and therefore the experience could be less triggering.

However, they often have added financial stress and if the primary caregiver is not coping, they can find it difficult knowing what to do.

What about the impact on the child?

The first year of life is a very important developmental phase, Professor Buist explained, and the child was completely reliant on the primary caregiver to be in tune with their needs.

"It can be very difficult if you are currently unwell, so there are risks at a number of levels; attachment impeded by the illness or that the stirring up of emotions from that woman's childhood," she said.

"So these are the sorts of things we like to alert women to and help them manage if needed."

And while a crying child that won't settle is difficult for anyone to deal with, Professor Buist said this experience was heightened for people suffering from mental health problems.

"If that cry triggers off your own childhood memories, it's about dealing with that separately and not allowing that to get in between mum and child and their attachment."