We don’t know exactly how many American children grow up with a seriously mentally ill parent. We can get a rough guess by looking at the rates of major mental illnesses and the number of adults who become parents. For example, according to the National Institute of Health, 3.2 million U.S. citizens have schizophrenia and 5.7 million have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimates that between 84 and 85 percent of American women, and 75% of adult men, become parents in their lifetimes.  

Now, it may well be that a greater than average percentage of adults with serious mental illnesses decide not to have children. Even so, it is clear that there are thousands of children who are, or who have, grown up alongside a suffering parent. I was one of them.  

What’s Wrong with Dad? 

There are worse fates than growing up with a mentally ill parent. I knew both my parents loved me. I was lucky enough to be told – and believe – that my dad’s illness wasn’t my fault. And, I was blessed to have a grandmother who was always around to help when my Dad was missing in action.  

But some things were hard. It was confusing when my Dad, during a manic episode, decided he needed to be a preacher and move the family to New Orleans; while we went to church regularly, he had never been particularly religious. Fortunately, our minister – and some psychotropic medication – convinced him that it wasn’t likely that God’s plan included tearing our family apart (my mom, who was the primary breadwinner, wasn’t about to quit her job and leave the state) and that perhaps he could start his spiritual crusade by getting more involved in the church where he was a member. 

When, after my parents separated, my Dad was discovered sitting on his mother’s porch with a shotgun between his legs, I couldn’t help but feel like if I had loved him more – or he had loved me more – he would never have thought about taking his own life. 

A naïve thought, I know, but one that caused me a lot of pain. Perhaps the most prevalent “side effect” of my Dad’s illness was my absolute terror of depression. To this day, I hate any and all sad endings. I would rather run from pain than face it. Even though I have long-ago aged out of the typical onset of a major mental illness, it has only been in the past few years that I’ve allowed myself to let go of the fantasy that there’s a bipolar monster living in my own psychic closet.  

The Stigma of Mental Illness

Ironically, the worst part of growing up with a mentally ill parent was not the illness itself. It was the shame. It was the secrecy. It was my mom’s loneliness, isolation, and worry about other people finding out, which prevented her from getting the support she needed and made her a less available parent. Though as an adult I have known many creative, intelligent and successful people whose successfully treated mental illness is a small part of who they are, as a child and teenager, I felt absolutely certain that, like Hester Prynne In The Scarlet Letter, having a mental illness would brand me forever as a social outcast and moral failure.  

I’m sure this has, at times, spilled over to my own kids. Research shows that children who grow up with a mentally ill parent often worry about the possibility of their own children having a mental illness. As a result, we can be hypersensitive to our children’s emotions. Is this a normal childhood funk or the beginning of something serious? Should I call a therapist or let them ride it out? I don’t want to be anxious about my child’s normal feelings, yet neither do I want to ignore a red flag. What the hell is normal anyway?  

The Upside of Pain

I look forward to the day when we can talk about mental health as casually as we do a physical ailment.  

A psychologist friend of mine once remarked that she’d never met an interesting person who didn’t have a troubled childhood. An oversimplification, surely, but I have discovered some unexpected gifts from my upbringing. I don’t take my mental health for granted. I pick up on other people’s feelings pretty easy. I am empathetic. I think I’m a pretty good listener. And, perhaps most importantly, I will get help when I need it.  

In fact, many of the things that made growing up in my family hard have turned me into the psychologist I am today. And, I, like my psychologist friend, know some amazing people who, whether in spite of their upbringing or because of it. Each experience is an opportunity to learn, even when pain is your teacher. We all struggle; not being able to accept the struggle just makes it that much harder.