Self-care is key for parents coping with mental illness

Parenting can bring the best of times and the worst of times. Self-care can be the key to parenting success, especially for parents experiencing mental health issues.
Parenting can bring the best of times and the worst of times. Self-care can be the key to parenting success, especially for parents experiencing mental health issues. As the daughter of a schizophrenic who did a really good job parenting, Nichole Kosten, LMSW, is in a unique position to work with parents experiencing mental illness. Though shocked by the stigma she faced outside of her family circle as a child, her parents’ openness and willingness to discuss mental illness allowed her to cope.

“We had a lot of conversations about what mental illness was and what it wasn’t,” says Kosten, who serves as clinical director of Arbor Circle’s Newago location. “That it was not due to character but no different than a medical condition.”

Today, in her practice, Kosten always stresses self-care.

“With any mental health issue, make sure you’re engaging in self-care. Make yourselves a priority. We say that our kids matter more than us — and sometimes they do — but we matter, too,” she says. “Taking care of your body, eating, sleeping, and having hobbies that are fun and relaxing are even more important for people who have mental health-related issues.”

Kosten notes that parents with a mental issue often feel like they have to go above and beyond — provide more, be there more. It’s easy for them to neglect themselves as they try to compensate for feeling “less than.”

“Make sure you are treating yourself with kindness,” she says. “Don’t set yourself up for the expectations of perfection as long as you are meeting the needs of your children to the best of your abilities.”

Kosten also advises parents with mental health issues to have a safety plan in place in case they do experience a crisis. The plan should include contact information for professional resources as well as friends or family who are willing to step in and manage the children’s care for a few days.

“This is even more important when you are a single parent,” she says. “Have an extra backup plan in case your original isn’t enough. Identify whoever in your life can be a support person to you.”

When parents with mental illness experience additional social determinants such as income challenges, food insecurity, racism, or domestic abuse, their need for supports like therapy increase while their access to them decreases. Medicaid covers mental health care but those who don’t qualify are left uninsured or underinsured. Stigma, which is greater in African American and LatinX communities, can be a roadblock, as can fears that an abusive spouse or protective services will take children away when mental illness is disclosed.

Like Kosten, Douglas Johnson grew up with a mother who was mentally ill. Because bipolar disorder is common in his own extended family, he was able to raise his children without stigma.

“My only experience of stigma was with people who didn’t know me very well and saw me during an episode. For one, people really don’t understand that they’re seeing an episode of mania. They don’t see it unless you’re close,” he says. “As far as depression, the stigma was horrible with people who didn’t know me.”

Shawn Rosser, a peer recovery coach at Arbor Circle works with many parents helping them manage their mental health.

He also admits that parenting would have been a lot harder if his children’s mother had not been their primary caregiver.
“My responsibility was more financial or having time to do things with them,” he says. “Children keep you going because you have to provide for them. You somehow have to get better or otherwise your family won’t keep surviving. When I couldn’t work was the biggest problem. I lost jobs and went into bankruptcy. Somehow, I had to keep them going and I did.”

Helping people like Johnson for the past 22 years, psychologist Sean Kenny, Ph.D sees many parents in his practice. He notes that studies have found that while parenting brings people the highest levels of happiness, it also brings the highest levels of despair and anxiety.

“Parenting tends to do both at once. It can improve your mental health but also can be so stressful that it can cause deterioration. It’s kind of the best and worst of both worlds,” Kenny says. “At some point, when you’re raising children, one or both parents experience some everyday mental health problems like anxiety or depression. Then, of course, there are parents dealing with a more serious mental illness like recurring depression, schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder.”

Kenny notes that some parents with mental illness do fine until children reach a certain age. Then it triggers problems. Parents who might have avoided dealing with their illness are often confronted by it as their children hit the teen years.

“Parenting naturally causes people to get very anxious after a while. If you tend to be an anxious person already, kids, as they get older, you worry about them making good choices,” he says. “Anxiety and depression love to travel together. They are good buddies.”

Kenny states that rule number one is that parents take time to take care of themselves, no matter how busy they are as a parent. “Even if you have five kids, allow yourself to seek therapy. Do what keeps you healthy,” he says. “Put your own oxygen mask on first. If you’re a hot mess, even if you’re trying really hard, your kids aren’t going to benefit.”

When postpartum depression blindsides new moms

While welcoming a newborn can lift some parents up from the symptoms of mental illness, it can also herald the onset of postpartum depression – even among women who have never experienced mental health issues before giving birth.

MomsBloom, a Grand Rapids nonprofit that matches volunteers with new mothers, provides resources for those experiencing it.
“These moms set up these expectations of having a joyful, blissful life with their newborn, so it can be a very harsh contrast to what they had pictured,” says Carrie Kolehouse, president, MomsBloom board of directors.

Kolehouse advises all pregnant women to establish a support system of friends and family well before baby arrives. That support can include enlisting birth doulas, postpartum doulas, and, for those in the Greater Grand Rapids area, volunteers from MomsBloom. Many communities have programs like Strong Beginnings, a federal Healthy Start program targeting African American and Latinx women, men, and their babies from pregnancy through early childhood.

Women should establish support groups before and after pregnancy.

“We have found that women who have proper support from friends, family, and community do have a decreased risk of experiencing a perinatal mood disorder and are able to get through it a lot faster and easier,” she says. “I recommend getting that established before you get to the point where you are struggling because that is the most difficult time to ask for help.”

According to the MomsBloom website, one in seven new moms —and one in 10 new dads— experience perinatal mood and anxiety disorders. The website also provides an online assessment that helps new parents determine whether or not they should seek help.

Kolehouse recommends Pine Rest’s Mother-Baby Program for new moms experiencing severe postpartum depression. Mothers and infants attend the program together during the day and go home overnight, a much family-friendlier alternative than in-patient treatment away from the baby. For those experiencing mid-range symptoms, MomsBloom offers a list of therapists and psychiatrists experienced with perinatal mood disorders.

“If symptoms are on the light side, the ‘baby blues,’ we recommend good self-care,” she says. “Rest, eat well, drink water, and ask for help from friends and family – take really good care of yourself and be honest about the way that you’re feeling.”

Self-care can also mean professional help

To more successfully cope, parents with mental health issues may need to include additional self-care items on their agendas: therapy, support, and treatment. Support groups and activities like those offered by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) can be of great help. Kosten affirms that getting involved in a supportive community can be extremely helpful. However, she warns her patients to explore a number of settings and to be especially cautious about online groups.

“Make sure it’s the right fit for your needs,” she says. “Some are helpful, but others can pressure you to take on the needs of other people, so it can become really overwhelming. Proceed with caution. I would recommend starting with one-on-one therapy and then moving on to an in-person support group.”

As a parent who managed to raise his children despite his illness, Johnson adds this parting advice: “Make sure your children know that mental illness is like any other illness. You also have to let them know it can be a genetic disorder and very hereditary, so, it could happen to them. That’s my advice. Don’t hide the illness. You’ve got to be upfront. People do get better.”

Kenny sums it up like this, “A lot of western psychology is like Buddhism. Until you reach some level of enlightenment, you can’t really help other people,” he concludes. “If you’re all out of whack physically, spiritually, or psychologically, you’ve got to get yourself together before trying to show these little humans a path forward.”

This article is part of Michigan Nightlight, a series of stories about the programs and people that positively impact the lives of Michigan kids. It is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read more in the series here.

Photography by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studio.
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