Community support crucial for youngsters with mentally ill parents

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 July, 2011, 12:00am


According to the Hospital Authority, evidence worldwide indicates that between one million and 1.7 million people have a mental disorder and between 70,000 and 200,000 people suffer severe mental illness. The figures indicate that quite a large number of families have to deal with members suffering from these problems. In Hong Kong, mental health has grown into a serious social issue.

Taking care of a family member with mental health problems is difficult enough for an adult, so it is even harder for children and adolescents. How do young people experience their parents' mental health problems, and what can be done to help them cope?

I would like to share the story of a 16-year-old lad and his father, whom I met a year ago. The father is a single parent and has suffered from schizophrenia for six years. Although he still hears voices, the father is now able to live with these voices without submitting to their influence.

By the age of 10, the boy had become his father's caregiver. Twice he has had to call an ambulance for his father. When his father's problems are most acute, he has to prepare meals both for himself and his father, and cope with his studies. He has to monitor his father's mental state and decide whether he needs increased help.

'I have to decide if the voices are persuading him to engage in any risky behaviour,' he told me. 'They once told him to give out money to strangers. I dragged him back from the door and told him to stop.'

What is most difficult for the boy is the embarrassment he feels when in public with his father.

'Regardless of the weather and the season, he puts on sunglasses, sun hat and a facial mask and wraps himself up in a thick coat,' the boy said. 'This is when I keep a distance from my father.'

Despite so many challenges, the teenager manages to maintain an above-average performance at school and participate in school activities.

What factors helped him develop his resilience? Support from the boy's extended family and school were the most significant factors in helping him to cope.

'Grandpa came over to stay with me when father was in hospital,' the boy said. 'I felt secure and settled with grandpa's companionship. I used to stay late at school no matter whether I had school duty or not. There was understanding from teachers and fellow students. Chatting with them took away a great deal of my pressure.'

In evaluating his experience of growing up with a parent suffering from schizophrenia, he said: 'It is hard but I think I am more mature than others at the same age. I have more life experience and I am very independent. I have observed that some youngsters my age just can't live without the care of adults.'

As for his perception of his father's mental illness, he said: 'I do not focus on his mental illness. I treat him as an ordinary person and my father, not a mental patient.'

This teenager's experience echoes those of other children who grow up with parents who experience mental health difficulties. Having a stable supporting figure and a place of refuge and comfort can help relieve some of the pain and pressure.

But not all young people are lucky enough to have these resources available to help them cope with such challenges. Building mutual support among these young people and their families, and developing a nurturing community and school system will contribute to their resilience.

After my encounter with this brave teenager, I started to gather stories of other young people's courage and spirit in the face of their parents' mental health difficulties. By sharing their stories and wisdom, I hope we can benefit others in similar situations.

Dr Lau Yuk-king is a professional consultant at Chinese University's department of social work