Should People With Mental Illness Have Children?

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family_profile_pataWe stumbled across a “Dear Prudence” letter from a couple with a significant history of mental illness who were agonizing over whether or not they should have children. The writer describes herself as someone who has OCD, depression, and PTSD, while her fiancé struggles with social anxiety and alcoholism. They both love children, and have discussed starting a family. But, they have serious concerns about how having kids could affect their mental health, and conversely, how their illnesses may affect their children.

Prudence offers some sound advice by encouraging the couple to speak with a social worker and a genetic counselor in order to get a clear understanding of what having children will mean for them. Prudence goes on to caution them “while your job has time limits, you can’t clock out at the end of the day when you’re a parent.” Finally, Prudence offers her opinion that she doesn’t “think you two right now are candidates for taking on this overwhelming nature of child-rearing.”

The fact is that raising children is not easy – but should a mental illness stop someone from having a child? Is Prudence right about this couple? How can a fragile couple cope with the natural ups and downs that come with parenthood?

We don’t have all the answers to these questions, but we do know that it can be done – many people with mental illness have children and find ways to balance caring for their children and caring for themselves. One of our volunteers, Pata, has talked at length about the difficulties of raising her daughter Niko while struggling with her depression.

"Being a mother is my greatest challenge," says Pata, "But, Nariko's presence has kept me strong when I have struggled the most." Pata has made a conscious decision that Nariko not wonder what's going on and not blame herself for Pata's illness, like Pata did with her mother. "I tell Nariko when I'm sad and that my illness causes it, not her," she says. "But, I know Nariko sometimes has trouble accepting it.”

To help Nariko understand her illness, Pata wrote a children's book with her from the perspective of a child, on a mother's depression and what it means. Pata says, "I wrote things like 'Sometimes I cannot go to the movies with my mom,' and 'My mommy tells me it's not my fault. It's an illness."

Check out this article from the AACAP for tips about talking to your children about your depression or other mental illness. Our friends at BP Magazine have a great blog that often touches on the struggles of balancing parenthood & illness – like this blog by Marybeth Smith! Check it out & read some of the others.

Family Profiles