Our parents’ mental illnesses, if left unchecked, can contribute to Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). When thinking about how parental mental illness can affect family members, the landmark CDC/Kaiser Permanente study on ACEs defined “mental illness” to include everything from eating disorders and depression to more chronic conditions that completely distort a person’s perception of themselves and reality.
In particular, this ACE refers to mental illnesses that are not effectively managed by the parent and medical professionals, but rather loom noticeably over the household, intruding on the child’s own mental and emotional development. In other words, the untreated mental illness grows from a fog to a storm cloud that overshadows family life. In a house with impressionable children, the untreated mental illness has serious consequences for their health and development.
Why is Parental Mental Illness an ACE?
All mental illnesses complicate daily activities and obligations. Mental illness impacts our ability to control our impulses, maintain relationships, hold down a job, and our general decision-making. Numerous factors shape our mental states, from the genetic—like certain mood disorders—to the environmental—like our sleep patterns, exposure to lead, and access to nutritious food.
A parent’s mental illness becomes a child’s ACE when the condition is not properly managed and its symptoms bleed into the child’s life. For instance, mood disorders like depression and anxiety can severely limit or amplify a parent’s energy. Parents with too little—or too much—bandwidth may not have the physical, mental, and emotional capacity to effectively meet their child’s needs.
More invasive conditions like postpartum depression have a strong impact on the parent-child connection. If left unchecked, postpartum depression is known to carry a higher risk of childhood abuse and physical or emotional neglect.
Sadly, this subject is so stigmatized that mothers may be reluctant to seek help managing it. Of course, no particular diagnosis, by itself, makes a parent unfit to raise their child. But even common and fairly-harmless conditions like depression can, and do, reverberate throughout the family, impacting the child’s sense of stability.
Prevention of Parental Mental Illness ACE
The parent’s mental illness will not devolve into an ACE if the parent has the tools to emotionally engage their child and make sound judgments about the child’s health and fulfillment. There is nothing wrong–but quite a bit right–with seeking the advice, and sometimes supervision, of an informed support network.
One effective tool in helping parents moderate their mental illness is Maternal Home Visiting. Maternal home visitors offer emotional support, as well as objective and judgment-free counsel on local resources.
Most importantly, maternal home visitors personify what many parents need above all: a friendly face and sympathetic ear who can remind them that they are competent, capable, and worthy of raising their child.
Prenatal care providers can also play a role in connecting pregnant women with quality health care and screening for postpartum depression. Everyone in the community must have access to effective, high-quality mental health care, for the sake of parents and children alike.
Additional Resources for Help
If you, or someone you love, faces a mental illness that eclipses their parental functioning, there is hope.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s national helpline offers free, confidential referral and information services at 1-800-662-4327 (“HELP”). You can also reach the national Crisis Text Line by sending a text to 741741, or the Help For Moms helpline by calling or texting 1-800-944-4773. You are not alone.
Learn more about ACEs associated with Parental Mental Illness on our website. You can help make sure this never happens to another child. Learn how by subscribing to our newsletter and supporting our work. Read about the ten categories of ACEs by following our blog. Do you know your ACE score? Take the ACE test here.
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Brett Michael Fuller
JD Candidate at Albany Law School
Brett is a law student studying criminal justice and national security issues. Previously, he served on congressional staff and as a crisis worker, where he became familiar with the physical and mental toll of environmental stressors including Adverse Childhood Experiences.