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Visions Journal

A reminder that this article from our magazine Visions was published more than 1 year ago. It is here for reference only. Some information in it may no longer be current. It also represents the point of the view of the author only. See the author box at the bottom of the article for more about the contributor.

Changing attitudes, opening minds

Sarah Hamid-Balma

Reprinted from "Parenting" issue of Visions Journal, 2004, 2 (2), p. 9

Children, youth and adults all around us are ample evidence that most people with mental illness can parent successfully, though some need support at times to do so; however, getting others to believe that has been the tricky part and, historically, an uphill battle. What the quotation featured to the right speaks to is the eugenics based programs of the twentieth century that tried to weed out ‘undesirables’ like criminals, prostitutes, people with addictions, mental illness and other assorted disabilities which were all thought to be hereditary. As a result, the legacy of parenting rights discrimination for people with mental illness began with the complete elimination of those rights through forced sterilization in men and women, boys and girls, in Western nations like Canada and the US. In the US, for instance, from 1907 onwards, at least 60,000 people who had either epilepsy or a mental disability were sterilized.2 Closer to home, 2000 residents of provincial mental institutions were sterilized without their permission between 1928 and 1972 under the Alberta Sterilization Act.3 Though the days of legalized sterilization programs in the Western world are

  • Of those consumers with children who responded to a British survey, 48% of women and 16% of men believed that their parenting abilities had been unfairly questioned because of their service user status.

  • It is frequently implied or even stated that people diagnosed with severe mental illness should not marry or have children because they are too psychologically fragile, carry a genetic predisposition, or are incapable of providing a stable home environment. One consumer describes such an encounter: “In an icy and imperious voice that I can hear to this day, he [the physician] stated – as though it were God’s truth, which he no doubt felt that it was – ‘You shouldn’t have children. You have manic-depressive illness.’ I felt sick, unbelievably and utterly sick, and deeply humiliated. Determined to resist being provoked into what would, without question be interpreted as irrational behaviour, I asked him if his concerns about my having children stemmed from the fact that, because of my illness, he thought I would be an inadequate mother or simply that he thought it was best to avoid bringing another manic-depressive into the world. Ignoring or missing my sarcasm, he replied ‘Both.’ I asked him to leave the room, put on the rest of my clothes, knocked on his office door, told him to go to hell, and left. I walked across the street to my car, sat down, shaking, and sobbed until I was exhausted.”


  • Despite a lack of evidence suggesting that people diagnosed with mental illness are unable to parent (like everyone else, they have an equal shot at being good, bad, or indifferent parents), research has shown that parents so diagnosed lose custody for reasons “that would rarely constitute grounds for termination with ‘normal’ parents, such as bad attitude or sexual promiscuity.”

  • Consumers are sometimes not permitted contact with children after adoptive parents have taken custody, presumably out of a perceived fear for the child’s safety.

  • Vocational rehabilitation tends to ignore parenting, probably because it has had a greater focus on male conceptions of work above the ‘work’ of parenting.1 Also, as one author points out, “women may be given little recognition for the fact that they may desire the valued role of ‘mother’ compared with that of ‘mental patient,’ especially since other roles, such as worker, are often not available.

  • Finally, eugenics may rear its head again if, while tackling the human genome project genes for mental illnesses are discovered that reopen the age-old debate on the ethics of eliminating human frailties or ‘defects’ in the population before birth

Yet, although studies continue to investigate the degree of hereditary connections of mental illness – for example, the majority of people with schizophrenia have neither a parent nor a first- or second-degree relative affected by the illness – little commentary is made on the value, comfort and support a parent with a mental illness can provide for a child dealing with their first experience of mental illness. The arguments are always framed as ‘We can parent just as well despite our illness’ instead of occasionally saying, ‘We might just be able to parent better because of our illness.’

About the Author

Sarah is Director of Public Education and Communications at the Canadian Mental Health Association BC Division and Visions' Production Editor

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  2. Lombardo, P (1983). Involuntary serialisation in Virginia: from Buck V Bell to Poe v. Lynchburg.Developments in Mental Health Law, 2(3),17-21.

  3. Chase, S (1998, July I). Sterilization tab rises by $18 million Calgary Herald,AI.

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