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Invisible Children: Kids of Mentally Ill Parents Often Overlooked

By Alice Kenny

     (The article below is an excerpt from my new book, Crazy Was All I Ever Knew: The Impact of Maternal Mental Illness on Kids. I have used a pseudonym to protect the privacy of family members.)

    Growing up with a mentally ill mother, I learned to stay under the radar—to avoid drawing attention to myself in my home and later in the world around me. This gave me a sense of safety. My mother’s behavior was erratic, and she displayed a propensity for unprovoked rages. Her mental illness was undiagnosed, never discussed among family members, and never disclosed to anyone outside of the family.

    I fit the profile of an “invisible child.”

    Often, parental mental illness goes undiagnosed. As reported in an article in Social Work Today, Joanne Nicholson, a clinical and research psychologist, notes, “The first problem [for children of mentally ill parents] is that their parents’ problems go unrecognized, so their needs also go unrecognized.” (

    It’s not unusual for parental mental illness to be ignored or brushed under the rug. Research shows that parents and children may keep mental illness in the family a secret due to stigma and shame, and parents may fear being reported to child protective services and losing custody of their children.

    As it turns out, that fear is not unfounded. According to Child & Family Connections, a Philadelphia-based organization dedicated to improving the lives of families living with mental illness, as many as 70 percent of children whose parent has a mental illness are removed from their homes and placed in foster care.

    My siblings and I never heard the word “stigma,” but it enshrouded us. In fact, stigma kept the family quiet about mental illness through generations. My grandmother suffered depression, and every attempt was made to disguise her mental illness. When she was hospitalized for treatment, we were told she “went to the farm.”  With my mother, the family perpetuated the cycle of stigma. My father no doubt experienced futility. As my husband sees it, my dad may have felt stuck: “What was he supposed to do? He had to go to work. If he got a divorce, what would happen to you kids?”

    Most likely, other family members knew about my mother’s mental illness and were complicit in keeping it under wraps. I’m not certain if neighbors or others in the community suspected that my mother was mentally ill. My mother presented well in public—when she strayed outside the house to go to the supermarket, the fabric store, and church. I’ve learned that the ability to keep it together while in public view is a not an uncommon phenomenon among parents with certain mental illnesses.

    Mental health professionals say when no adult validates a child’s experience, it can cause the child to doubt his or her reality. Thankfully, I wasn't plunged into that netherworld. By the time I was six or seven, I knew on my own that something wrong with my mother. I didn’t need an adult to tell me, but I did need an adult to help me. Nonetheless, my siblings and I were left to deal with my mother’s  rampages on our own. We were unprotected from her erratic behavior during the most vulnerable periods of our lives.

    Today, even when stigma is overcome and parents with mental illness receive treatment, their children’s needs often go unnoticed. Children are sometimes not told about their parent’s mental illness, and they are not asked how their parent’s mental illness may be affecting them.

    Sometimes, the behaviors of kids can be misleading. Suzette Misrachi, an Australian mental health practitioner, points out that competent, well-functioning offspring or “superkids” of mentally ill parents risk having their needs overlooked because they don’t exhibit overt signs of trauma. For example, they may excel at school, participate in sports, and have friends, so their needs can fall through the cracks.

    Fortunately, there is the opportunity for more children of mentally ill parents to get the services they need as a result of the screening of children for ACEs by pediatricians; however, such screening is far from widespread.

    Kids can be spared trauma. Not all kids of mentally ill parents experience trauma—notably, those who have supportive relationships with caring adults, exposure to positive experiences, and opportunities to develop effective coping skills.

 (My book, Crazy Was All I Ever Knew: The Impact of Maternal Mental Illness on Kids, is available on Amazon in both Kindle and paperback versions. You can reach me at




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Hello Alice, 

Truly sorry to hear of your childhood and what was going on with your mom. Did anyone ever inquire about her own childhood growing up? More often that not, those labeled "mentally ill" had their own struggles with trauma, abuse and neglect growing up.  So years later, it manifests in what our society and the medical world want to label "mental illness".  Unfortunately the stigma to those two words, "mental illness", causes the majority of folks to not seek help. And for many of us who sought help, we found blame and shame heaped upon us. Someday through the efforts of those in the ACE"s community and other advocates trying to educate the world about the long term impact of trauma, we can get people to start thinking, "What happened to you?" and not, "What is wrong with you?"  And then, we might see trauma informed care and practice to help all of those in the family.

My parents had unproved rage that did manifest into severe abuse upon their children. And yes, they too masked it well in the community, at their work and place of worship. I learned later in life how traumatic and violent their own upbringing had been, I do not forgive them for what they did to me and my siblings, but I have empathy for who they were as children. Breaking the cycle of abuse and neglect will go a long way in healing our world. Mental health practitioners have long told me that my parents were "mentally ill". It was trauma and abuse that messed them up...

Sadly, the trauma of my childhood and teen-aged years came back to haunt me as an adult. Now I had to deal with PTSD and major depression, which impacted my wife and five children. I did not abuse them, but now their husband and dad was holed up in his room battling flashbacks, nightmares and in a drugged-up-stupor from all of the medications the mental health practitioners put me on to help me with my "mental illness". My family lost a vibrant, engaged & energetic dad and husband due to my childhood and now the treatment of the mental health center. Only when I broke away from this maltreatment and sought help at the Trauma Center in Boston did I start to heal, but by then I had lost my wife to divorce and it did a number our children.

My advocacy efforts since 1993 has taught me that 90% of those receiving services at mental health centers have had significant trauma and abuse in their lives. One in five people will deal with a mental health issue in their life, but two thirds will not seek help due to the stigma. I learned a long time ago when working with abused and neglected kids/teens that the Div. of Youth and Families here in NH had a mantra, "any mentally ill parent is an unfit parent". I did some work with Joanne Nicholson and others in trying to help dispel that myth here in NH, but, we still have a long ways to go. I have long remembered Joanne sharing to the audiences of how her husband's struggles with cancer made him unavailable, etc,  to her and their kids. But he was not cut out of their lives, a sad reality a parent could face if dealing with depression, etc.

I cannot go back and undo my past, I try my level best with my advocacy to help raise awareness so that other families might get the help they need to end these cycles of trauma and mental health challenges.I wish you, your mom and family had that help back then. I hope with your book and speaking out that it raise more awareness and helps families to get the much needed help they deserve.

Take care, Michael

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