For Young Parents with Serious Mental Health Conditions, Parenting Can Be a Tough but Rewarding Journey Toward Recovery

A study funded by the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR).

An estimated five to seven million young adults have a serious mental health condition such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or severe forms of depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress. Research shows that these young adults tend to become parents at an earlier age than their peers without these disabilities; 29% of adults with serious mental health conditions between 18 and 26 are parents of at least one child compared to just 19% of their peers. Parents with serious mental health conditions generally experience challenges as they navigate adulthood and parenting, including higher rates of poverty, lower employment, managing a family without a partner or spouse, and societal barriers of stigma and discrimination. Young parents with mental health conditions may be at an even higher risk for poor outcomes due to both their age and their disability. Their parenting responsibilities may interfere in their ability to fully participate in education or employment, which are important to mental health recovery. Parenting is stressful, and due to stigma or limited social networks, young adults with serious mental health conditions may not know who or where to turn to for support to manage their mental health and maintain their family relationships.

In a recent NIDILRR-funded study, researchers sought to understand the experiences of young parents with serious mental health conditions. The researchers wanted to learn how they navigated young adulthood while managing their mental health and parenting young children.

Researchers from the Learning and Working During the Transition to Adulthood Rehabilitation Research and Training Center interviewed 18 young adults in Massachusetts who were part of a larger study about the experiences of navigating young adulthood with a serious mental health condition. The participants were between the ages of 22 and 30, had some school or work experience, and had been diagnosed with major depression, anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia at or before 22.  All of the participants became parents before they turned 25 and had at least one child 12 months or older living with them for at least six months. Participants were interviewed in person and described their educational, vocational, and employment experiences; how those experiences changed over time; and how life circumstances and experiences such as their mental health conditions and major life events influenced those activities. They also answered questions about their children, their parenting experiences, how their lives changed after becoming parents, custody and living arrangements, and challenges or supports they experienced specific to parenting.

The participants included 15 mothers and 3 fathers, and most were White, non-Hispanic. The majority were never married, and half lived independently without their parents or other family members. Their children’s ages ranged from infants to 12 years old, and most parents had custody of their children full-time.

The researchers identified several themes from the interviews:

  • Many participants said managing their mental health while parenting could be challenging. For some, mental health symptoms made it difficult to be fully present. For others, the stress of parenting could trigger symptoms and negative coping mechanisms. Taking time to manage mental health left some participants feeling guilty for putting their needs ahead of their children.
  • At the same time, many participants reported that the act of parenting itself motivated them to start and maintain their mental health recovery. Their children gave them something positive to focus on or a sense of purpose, shifting away from negative thoughts or actions.
  • Many participants reported facing discrimination and stigma. Some participants described being judged for their parenting ability, including as part of custody hearings. Others described being labeled as having behavioral problems when the stress of managing parenting and school triggered their mental illness symptoms.

Based on the results, the authors noted that the young adults with serious mental health conditions in this study reported parenting as both a stressor and a benefit for their serious mental health conditions. An overwhelming majority of the participants described their children as the prime motivator for staying on the path to recovery, even if they felt guilty for taking care of their mental health. At the same time, many described the stress of parenting as exacerbating to their mental health challenges, sometimes interfering with their ability engage and build healthy relationships with their children. The authors also noted that many of young parents had experienced or were afraid of experiencing stigma or discrimination, which can prevent people from seeking treatment. Many participants wanted people to know that it is possible to be a parent and that experiencing a mental illness doesn’t equal being a bad parent.  

The authors suggested that services that encourage and motivate parents early in their parenting journey may help support both recovery and healthy family relationships, particularly programs that foster resilience and incorporate parenting as a positive part of the recovery journey. Additional supports such as transportation and day care support could help young parents with serious mental health conditions manage family and recovery. Drop-in centers and Access Centers, which are popular for young people with serious mental health conditions, could offer parenting education and peer support and develop programs to support recovery plans that foster wellness for both parent and child.

The authors noted that the participants in this study were mostly White mothers and limited geographically to Massachusetts. Therefore, their experiences may be different from parents from other racial and ethnic groups or from other parts of the country. Future studies could include a larger, more diverse group of parents, including more fathers, to understand the full range of experience of this community. With the right supports, young people with serious mental health conditions who become parents can navigate the challenges and joys of parenthood.

To Learn More

The Learning and Working During the Transition to Adulthood Rehabilitation Research and Training (Transitions ACR) conducts rigorous research, training, technical assistance, and dissemination activities with the goal of improving outcomes for young adults with serious mental health conditions. Transitions ACR offers many resources including webinars, factsheets, infocomics, and more, including pieces written by young people for young people.

The National Research Center for Parents with Disabilities and Their Families conducts research and training to improve the lives of parents with disabilities and their families. Visit the Community Perspectives and Support for Parents resources to hear from peers with disabilities who are navigating the joys and challenges of parenting. Providers may wish to explore the ParentingWell Practice Profile, an approach to routine practice that makes talking about parenting, children, and family experiences a natural part of the conversation around adult recovery.

The Temple University Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on Community Living and Participation of People with Serious Mental Illness offers many resources for parents with serious mental health conditions including a leisure education toolkit and factsheets dispelling myths about parenting with mental illness.

To Learn More About this Study

Sabella, K., Baczko, A., Lane, I.A., Golden, L., Pici-D’Ottavio, E., and O’Neill, M. (2022) A challenging yet motivating journey: The experiences of young adult parents with serious mental health conditions in the USA. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 13: 81418. This article is available from the NARIC Collection under Accession Number J89428 and in full text from the publisher.

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