A seminar organised by Barnardos on mental health issues in families, heard there is an over-reliance on medication as a means of dealing with mental health problems and that some mothers were afraid to seek help because they felt their children might be removed from their care.
One of the speakers, Janet Colgan of the Education Welfare Services within Tusla, the new Child and Family Agency, said there were instances where children might miss school because of parental mental health issues.
Another speaker, Gina Delaney of the Carer’s Association, said there were many instances in which a child may have a carer role, and mental health would be an example. In her experience, she said, she had missed school because her mother had “fears of what would happen to me if I was away from her”.
She said the Carer’s Association had seen an increasing number of cases where either parents were reporting a mental health difficulty, or adults who had grown up in such a situation were now themselves displaying signs of stress.
Agnes Higgins, professor in Mental Health at Trinity College Dublin said mental health issues in women encompassed fear of a loss of custody of children and negative attitudes of professionals towards them as mothers. The impact of a mother’s mental health on her children was also highlighted, with Prof Higgins claiming that children could experience confusion, distress or blame and in some cases it meant them “taking on roles within the family beyond their years”.
There was also a fear of being removed from their parent.
However, Prof Higgins also said: “Women with mental health problems are mothering children around the country every week and doing a really great job.” She said it was important that women with mental health issues did not feel afraid to come forward and seek help, and that children taking on other roles could build resilience and skills for the future by doing so.
Women seeking help faced four barriers, Prof Higgins said: Acceptability, availability, accessibility, and affordability. These included being labelled a bad mother, a lack of services, some of which were not family-friendly, and the high costs of psychological services. Prof Higgins said an holistic approach that acknowledged the woman’s role as a parent, with suitable supports, was “not the norm”, which instead was “a constant balancing act to live up to the notion of ‘ideal mother’, maintaining her own health, responding to children’s needs and meet the demands of the service”.
In many cases mothers tended to prioritise their children’s needs at a cost of their own health.
She said there needed to be easier access to specialised maternal mental health services, rather than a “post code lottery”.
Alison Canavan, Barnardos Ambassador, stressed the importance of a lifestyle approach to dealing with issues of mental health and the need to tailor responses for individual needs.