Reprinted from "Parenting" issue of Visions Journal, 2004, 2 (2), p. 12
Mental health systems are guilty of not paying attention to mentally ill mothers in terms of needed research, treatment and support. Due to the complexity of their situations, many families led by these women cease to function.
Women diagnosed with mental illnesses do not lose their need for sexual fulfillment and reproduction. They even have more children than on average. It is tragic that 62% of these women lose custody of some of their children during their parenting years.
Mental Patients’ Association (MPA) conducted a study about the experiences of mentally ill mothers who live in Vancouver in order to design a program that would address their needs and help to reduce the incidence of child apprehension, if not eliminate it altogether. Hospitalization, divorce proceedings and difficulties in raising the children on one’s own were found to be the main causes of the child’s removal.
Some of the women in our study never even saw their children. Often, a child was put up for adoption immediately after birth when the mother was hospitalized with acute psychosis. In 1997, for example, a mentally ill woman sued Chilliwack Hospital for inducing labour and for putting her newborn into protective custody “due to disability of the parent” without her consultation or consent. The mother claimed that the circumstances of the apprehension violated her rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to security of person, privacy, equality and fairness. She lost her case and may be still in a process of appeal.
Hospitalization is the major reason for removing the child from an ill mother’s care. Once placed in foster care, the chances of a prompt return of the child are very slim. Most women said that they did not have the mental stamina and lacked important information and the support of the legal system. Many gave up the fight for the return of their children.
In divorce proceedings, the surveyed women reported that their mental condition was used as a ground for divorce and for giving the custody of children to their husbands.
The most difficult situations that single, mentally ill mothers have to deal with are common to most women who are the sole providers for their families: lack of financial resources; lack of social, medical and emotional support; and loneliness. Women with mental illness have to cope with added stresses that are unique and a result of the nature of their specific mental illness and society’s perception of it.
When asked about satisfaction with available supports, the mental health system – represented by social workers, psychiatrists and therapists – was assigned the lowest level of satisfaction with available support. The reason for this finding might be the singular approach of mental health professionals to their clients. Dealing only with the diagnosis as the primary focus does very little to enhance the capabilities of mothers to address critical issues of successful parenting. The focus has to be on the whole person and must include recognition that a woman’s life changes dramatically when she becomes a parent.
The fact that 31% of the children stayed with their biological mother until adulthood is an indicator of the strength, ability, parenting skills, dedication and sound symptom management on the mothers’ part. It is recognized that children are best cared for by their own families and mental health services have to assist temporarily hospitalized and sick women with the selection of substitute care of their choice before it is imposed upon them. Women, themselves, can control this option by drafting a ‘Ulysses Agreement,’ where their choice of action to be taken in case of hospitalization is spelled out.
In the past few years more attention has been given to the problems of mentally ill parents and their children than ever before. We only hope that this trend will continue.
About the Author
Jirina works for the Mental Patients' Association