Interview: Author Gayathri Ramprasad speaks on parents with mental illness

Shadows in the Sun cover

Shadows in the Sun cover

The Oregonian, March 5, 2014

Not only does Gayathri Ramprasad know what it’s like to cope with a mental illness, but she also knows what it’s like to do so while raising children.

In her newly published memoir, “Shadows in the Sun,” Ramprasad, a Cedar Mill resident, writes in eloquent, forthright and measured tones about her 30-year battle with depression.

Ramprasad, the founder of ASHA International, a nonprofit organization promoting wellness, will read from her book at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 12, at Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W. Burnside St. She answered questions by email about parenting and mental illness. Answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Question: How is a parent’s diagnosis of mental illness most likely to affect his or her children?

Answer: A parent’s diagnosis of mental illness affects his or her children in a multitude of ways impacting their relationship, day-to-day functioning, and overall wellbeing.

For example, a child whose parent is struggling with depression might feel helpless and isolated when her parent can’t get out of bed and help her get ready for school. Or, a child might feel confused and scared about a parent’s erratic mood swings and agitation caused by bipolar disorder.

Q: How soon after diagnosis should a parent reveal the diagnosis to children? Should the parent wait until a specific course of treatment is determined? Or tell the children as soon as he or she knows?

A: The sooner the better – children, as we know, are extremely perceptive. They know when something is wrong with their parents, and might feel confused or scared to ask their parents about what is wrong. Oftentimes, they blame themselves, or feel helpless or guilty over their parent’s distress, and it takes a huge toll on their wellbeing.

So, it is best that a parent explains a diagnosis to his or her children with words that can be easily understood, and assure them that the parent is receiving treatment and will get better. It is also very important to reassure the children that they did not cause their parent’s sickness, and that they will be surrounded with love and support.

Q: How open should a parent be with his or her children? For instance, if a parent knows he or she has a slight chance of suffering psychotic episodes, should he or she prepare children for that, or would that just scare them unnecessarily?

A: Honesty is the best policy. However, it is important for parents to communicate to their children in ways that are easily comprehended without confusing or scaring them.

For instance, if a parent knows that he or she has a slight chance of suffering psychotic episodes, explain that the illness sometimes causes the parent to see, hear, and imagine things that aren’t real.

It is critical that the parent creates a support network among family and friends and lets the children know that in the event the parent cannot take care of them, their family and friends will love and take care of them.

Q: Children often adapt to a situation more easily when they can control some aspect of it or help in some way. How can parents with a mental illness have their children help or take some control?

A: Children are very resilient. But, when a parent is sick, children are often confused and scared. A clear understanding about their parent’s illness and a plan of action of how to cope and how to help makes children feel in control.

When a parent is sick, children often worry, ‘Who will take care of me when my mom or dad is sick?’ Parents can be proactive in sitting down with their children and creating a list of phone numbers of family and friends who can take care of them when the parent is sick. Parents can also help their children make a list of things they can do to help.

Here are some ways children can help:

  • Stay calm: It can be scary to see your parent sick. But, it is important to remain calm, and get help.
  • Get help: Call a family member or friend who can get help for your parent and take care of you.
  • Stick to your routine: Keep up with your schoolwork, hobbies, and daily routine.

Q: Can you recommend some resources for parents who’ve been diagnosed with a mental illness?

A:Wishing Wellness: A Workbook for Children of Parents with Mental Illness,”  by Lisa Anne Clarke and Bonnie & Ellen Candace

Spontaneous Happiness: A New Path to Emotional Well-Being,” by Andrew Weil, M.D.

State of Oregon – Addictions and Mental Health Services – a division of the Oregon Health Authority

ASHA International– Ramprasad’s organization works to promote personal, organizational, and community wellness through mental health education, training and support.

NAMI Oregon– State affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, a nonprofit, grassroots mental health education, advocacy and support organization.

Mental Health America of Oregon – State affiliate of a grassroots mental health organization dedicated to advocating for patients, services and policies.

Lines for Life – Oregon-based nonprofit dedicated to preventing suicide and substance abuse.

SAMHSA’s Wellness Initiative – A program of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.