Many people embrace an “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” attitude about mental health problems because of the trauma and shame surrounding them. Yet, when we don’t acknowledge and address mental health problems, they don’t go away — and trauma is passed on through generations.
In a study conducted for the journal Quality of Life Research, researchers found that poor parental mental health was the top predictor of children’s quality of life. According to the research, trauma and parental stress impact everything from a child’s cognition to their success in school, social skills, and behavior. Parental mental health also has a direct effect on the likelihood that a family will get involved in the child welfare system. Child abuse and neglect happen at the intersection of many issues: poverty, domestic violence, substance use and mental problems.
Speaking from experience, I can attest to this — having a parent facing mental health issues is a serious hardship. An unfortunate symptom can be parents blaming the child for their issues, which is unproductive and often extremely harmful. Wondering what I could do differently to make my parents feel better left me feeling simultaneously overwhelmed and helpless.
My parents’ mental health problems exacerbated my own, and I worry about continuing that cycle with my own children. It was common for me to feel like a burden to my parents, which fed into my own anxiety and depression. As a teenager, I began turning to unsafe behaviors to cope, such as self-harm and drinking. My grades plummeted, and I felt lost both at home and away from home.
My family wound up entangled in the juvenile justice and child welfare systems, which I might argue caused more harm than good. We left these systems in the same circumstances that we’d entered with, along with the added burden of the trauma of court and separation. I never want my own children to feel the way I did or go through what I went through. While perpetuating generational trauma is a valid concern, early intervention enables us to stop the cycle.
The level of harm inflicted by parents struggling with their mental health is dependent on a few factors, such as the age of the child and the severity of the parent’s symptoms. Kids are most at risk from birth to age 5, and again during adolescence. Fortunately, parental mental illness does not guarantee problems for a child. Proper mental healthcare, a strong support system, and other steps can help bolster children’s resilience. Addressing a parent’s issues before they affect a child is extremely effective — research suggests that when a mother and baby are both stressed, soothing the mother helps them both.
As a society, it’s easier to blame individual parents than to turn the mirror on our systems and the biases embedded within them. There are steps we can take to address these problems on a systemic level so we don’t augment trauma by blaming the people experiencing it. Widespread public education about trauma could help people recognize when they need to seek help and be more understanding of each other. Ensuring that essential workers, like healthcare professionals, are properly trained to work with traumatized patients could help prevent re-traumatization and employee burnout. There are effective types of therapy targeted to treat intergenerational trauma that explore the connection between family structures and self-talk.
The most important step, though, is simply acknowledging that this is a problem. Pretending we’re all fine helps no one — we’re all a little f-ed up, and admitting that gives us power.