How do we support a parent with a mental illness at school?

The facts are that parents suffer from mental illness and due to the nature of and the stigma associated with mental illness, in school settings, parents may feel excluded from the school community. This becomes yet another barrier to engagement and partnerships are thus more challenged to develop. Physical and mental well being are not static conditions. We move along a continuum from well to unwell from time to time. When we are at the unwell continuum of well being, we may require more support from others, in order to help us recover.

Primary, and secondary schools are about more than just the education of students.Schools are the gateway to the wider school community and should be there to provide supports for both families AND their children. Since school staff have no traditional training for engaging families, many educators may need assistance to build their capacity feel better equipped to embrace, interact and collaborate with diverse populations, including helping parents with mental illness feel included and valued at school.

School staff can provide a stable environment for students, help them develop resilience, promote awareness and access to support services, and build the mental health literacy of the entire school community to reduce the stigma of mental illness.

Besides welcoming families to your school, non-judgmentally, schools can develop policies and procedures around mental health that enable parents to feel welcome and find the supports they may need. Schools can use Family Care Plans to guide, monitor and collaborate with other services involved in the family’s life. Increase supports for children, as well, while implementing programs to build social-emotional skills and developing effectively positive coping behaviors.

Help parents feel comfortable talking about their mental illness by:

  • Equipping all staff to work with families from a strengths-based solutions-focused approach, with non-judgmental inquiry within safe spaces
  • Assuring parents, early on, that it is best for you and their child if the school is made aware of any important issues at home which may impact a child in school.

Do not be afraid to use the words, ‘mental illness’, or mental health problems’, when talking to parents. However, never suggest that a parent has a mental illness…ever. Being comfortable openly discussing those things which may affect their child and their family, makes if easier in conversation. You can help pave the way for true partnering. So, although parents may be reticent in sharing information about their mental illness, they will be more inclined to do so when they understand that you are not being nosy or judgmental, but helpful and supportive, in the best interest of their child

It is important that you do not mention a mental illness if the parent has not disclosed or shared their issues with you first. Schools need to know the services available to assist families in the local area, and must communicate clearly to families about the supports and services the school can offer and how to access them. For example, a staff may say to a parent:

” Sometimes when families go through tough times they find that the following are helpful: access to financial support, information about counseling, transportation, after-school supports, etc…. If we can be of any help with any of these, please let me know.”

It is both non-judgmental, you aren’t suggesting that you see a need, and welcoming, in that a door has been opened for future discussion. Invite the possibility that a parent comes to you when a need arises and be prepared to offer feedback and  other attending/listening skills and use your observational skills to ask non-probing, questions based upon your understanding of the parent’s intended message. Reflect or echo/repeat what you hear to ensure that you understand before you offer a response.  Being aware of community-based organizations, agencies and other supportive service providers,  including help from other school-based staff is critical.

Backed by accessible, culturally responsive and appropriate resources, it can be comforting and reassuring to parents when schools and school staff can help not only their children to thrive, but themselves as well. Your school can become and ultimately must become a gateway to the community at large. By facilitating student achievement, promoting parent leadership and by supporting total family wellness, schools embrace the whole child, whole family, and strengthen the whole community!

2 thoughts on “How do we support a parent with a mental illness at school?

  1. Such a timely article. As a, mental health professional, who overseen school based programs, it is so important for school staff to have awareness, understanding, and compassion in this area. Thank you for posting!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you very much for acknowledging the role of practitioners at school in providing supports to not only children, but their parents, also! There was a time when counseling in school settings excluding families, as the sole target audience. However, for 21st Century schools, families must now be a primary consideration for their roles and influence on children’s development, and supporting alliances with parents means meeting them ‘where they are’.


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