How ToTalk To Your Child About Your Mental illness

Helping kids deal with parent’s mental illness
Stacey Burling, Inquirer Staff Writer


Evan Kaplan was with his 9-year-old daughter, who was having trouble with  anxiety, when she told her therapist her father wouldn’t let her switch to a new  school because of his mental illness.

Kaplan was shocked. Even though he had been hospitalized many times for  bipolar disorder, he didn’t realize Charlotte knew he had a mental illness.

“It sort of opened my eyes to the fact that I needed to start talking to her  about it,” Kaplan said.

Charlotte’s remark three years ago not only brought father and daughter  closer, it set Kaplan on a path that now has him leading a class each Tuesday  night in Center City on parenting with a mental illness. The class, which runs  for several weeks, includes information on how to talk to your child about your  diagnosis.

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The organization Kaplan cofounded and now runs, Child and Family  Connections, is also working with the Einstein Healthcare Network to offer a  multiweek workshop in the fall for parents and children together. That workshop  grew from Charlotte’s later comment that she wished she could talk to other kids  whose parents have mental illnesses.

Counselors for people with serious mental illnesses often focus on more  pressing concerns, like finding a medication that works, preventing  hospitalizations, or keeping a job. Yet, Kaplan and other experts argue, helping  people with mental illnesses be better parents can speed their recovery and help  their children better understand their behavior and, ultimately, be emotionally  healthier as they grow up.

“It’s been a very underserved group,” said Kaplan, 44, who lives in  Philadelphia and who gave up his headhunting career last year. He was diagnosed  at 32 and has since dealt with “wild manic episodes and terrible deep depressive  episodes.”

He leads the class with Melodie Jackson, a peer counselor who counts herself  in recovery from depression and addiction. Temple University’s Collaborative on  Community Inclusion, which is also testing an Internet-based program, is a  cosponsor.

The Mental Health Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania also has run  parenting classes for 12 years. Its classes tend to focus on basic parenting  skills, whereas Kaplan’s aim is to improve communication within the family and  bolster children’s resilience.

“In an ideal world, folks would be going to both,” said Lisa Snitzer,  director of the association’s division of family and youth.

Across the nation, there’s growing recognition of the need, but such  instruction is still rare, experts said.

Asked why the relationship between parents with mental illnesses and their  children hasn’t gotten more attention, Joanne Nicholson, a psychologist at the  Dartmouth Psychiatric Research Center who has studied the subject for 25 years,  said, “I think about that every day of my life.”

Though there are no good statistics on the subject, large numbers of people  with the most serious mental illnesses – schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and  major depression – have children. Like any other parents, their relationships  with their children can generate emotional challenges and rewards.

“I have never met a parent who hasn’t benefited from support at some point  along the way,” Nicholson said. “I wish that, for parents with mental illness,  it could be a normal thing to ask for help.”

She is particularly interested “in the way in which succeeding or failing as  a parent affects your recovery.”

The Child and Family Connections class was developed by Kaplan and Loran  Kundra, another parent with bipolar disorder. This is the second time it has  been offered, and it will run again in the fall.

Topics include factors that help build resilience in children, such as a  strong support system. Parents talk about creating a back-up plan for their  children when they need to go into the hospital, and each writes a letter to a  child explaining the mental illness.

In his own three-page letter to Charlotte last year, Kaplan explained his  illness and told his daughter that it was not her fault and that he loved her.  He told her it was all right for her to have fun even when he was feeling bad  and that she should always feel free to ask questions.

“I often wonder, how does my bipolar disorder affect you?” he wrote. “How  much of my psychiatric disability do you see or don’t see? Does it make you feel  angry at me or sad or confused, worried or embarrassed by me? . . . Those  feelings are normal!”

This summer’s class hasn’t gotten to that assignment yet. At a recent  session, eight people who struggle with bipolar disorder, depression, and  addiction talked about coping mechanisms and support systems. They were a  remarkably supportive group, listening to one another in an intense,  undistracted way that’s rare these days.

Olen Foreman, 40, of Camden, said his relationship with one of his five  daughters was already improving. “It’s a complete turnaround,” he told the  group.

Later, Foreman, who has major depression and is a recovering alcoholic, said  the class helped him better understand his mother, who has schizophrenia, and to  see things from his daughters’ point of view.

He realizes his issues may have left his children feeling shortchanged.  “Sometimes in saving ourselves, the child gets left behind,” he said. He hopes  the class will bring them all closer.

Jackson, Kaplan’s co-leader, said the stigma of mental illness makes a lot of  people afraid to talk to their children. “They’re so much more comfortable once  they realize it’s OK,” she said.

The talk is valuable no matter how old the children are. “If they were  walking on eggshells at 7, 8, or 9, they could still be walking on eggshells at  21, 22,” she said.

Having a child can be an incentive to stay well, she said. When she was most  depressed, she “had no drive to do anything but take care of my son. That was  the only thing that kept me above water.”

Bobbie Tabb-King, a class member from Philadelphia who has been in addiction  recovery for 20 years but who still struggles with depression, has children and  stepchildren ages 20 to 31. It’s her young grandchildren she thinks about in  class. She routinely cares for two of them.

“Sometimes with my depression, it’ll shut me down, and I have to learn how to  be able to communicate what’s going on with me effectively for my kids as well  as for my grandchildren,” she said.

Anthony Buckson, 55, has two children at home in Philadelphia. He has  depression, and said he had attempted suicide twice. Being more open with his  family has strengthened the bond with his 13-year-old, who has attention deficit  disorder and who was recently told he has an autism spectrum disorder. Their  problems are different, Buckson said, but they can help each other. “It’s like  we’re a team,” he said.

He loves how much he’s learning in the classes. “I just can’t wait till  Tuesdays to get there,” he said.

Classes on Parenting With a Mental Illness

Child and Family Connections

A free, evening workshop co-led by Evan Kaplan will run for several weeks in  Center City starting in September. Information: 215-870-7420 or go to

Mental Health Association of Southeastern Pa.

A 12-week class begins 10 a.m. Aug. 21 in Center City. It is free but open  only to Philadelphia residents. Information: 267-507-3872.




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