Juggling post-secondary education and a parent's mental health problems – a daunting task!

28 September 2021

Juggling post-secondary education and a parent's mental health problems – a daunting task!

Mental health issues affect not only the person with the disorder, but also on their family and the people who live with them. LaPProche examines the situation of young people aged 0 to 25 with a mentally-ill parent.

28 September 2021

Post-secondary education has its challenges

Post-secondary education has its challenges. Add to the mix a parent with mental health issues and you've got a completely different story. Post-secondary institutions do not talk about young people with a mentally-ill parent, in part because they do not know the exact proportion of students involved, nor do they know their situation or needs. Caroline Jubinville and the Laboratoire de recherche et d'actions pour les personnes ayant des problèmes de santé mentale et leurs proches (LaPProche), conducted a study with a few students and staff members of a Quebec post-secondary institution to find out their point of view on this subject. Here are some of their answers. A special collaboration of LaPProche.

Marianne’s situation

Marianne (fictional name) is entering the second year of her bachelor’s program and is very apprehensive about it. Academically, Marianne has always considered herself gifted, but now she is barely able to hand in satisfactory work assignments.

The older she gets, the more aware she becomes of her mother's mental health problems and the more she feels her mother's condition is deteriorating. She feels an obligation to care for her and her younger brother. When she comes home and the refrigerator is empty, she goes grocery shopping, reminds her mother to take her medication every day and manages her medical appointments. She often thinks that she is the parent in the house.

She knows very well that her primary concern should be her studies, but she can't help but be constantly distracted. In class, she worries about her mother's condition, but at home, she stresses about not being able to concentrate on her study and homework. It's a never-ending loop! And that's not counting her absences from class during her mother's crises. And of course, she has to work, because her parents are not able to help her financially.

Sometimes she thinks that she unconsciously chose to study counselling because of her mother's illness. Ironically, she has no idea how to help herself through it all. The feeling of helplessness is what eats away at her the most. In the meantime, she is doing her best, even though she knows she is falling short of what she could be.

Marianne has never spoken about her family situation to her classmates, whom she has little contact with, devoting much of her time to her mother. She refuses to invite her peers home for teamwork for fear of being judged for her mother's paranoia and the state of the house. Because mental health issues are still not an easy subject to talk about. And yet, she helps her mother as much as if she had a physical illness. Sadly, she envies students who have children, considering the financial support they can receive. Although she gives them a lot of credit, she still thinks that just because you don't have kids, doesn't mean you don't have anyone to support.

This is her second year, and she has no idea where to turn for help. She doesn't know about the help programs offered by her university and her professors make her feel like she needs to leave her personal problems outside the classroom. As if that were possible! In any case, she would much rather devote her energies for the fundamentals than struggle to get help.

What she doesn't know is that there are probably several other students in the same situation. Other students who are silent, because they don't feel their situation is recognized by their educational institution. Many of these students, like Marianne, are suffering from having such a heavy load, from having to find their place in the world as an emerging adult, from having to put their social life or certain projects on hold, or from seeing their own mental health deteriorate.

Despite all of this, Marianne does not regret her choices. But she would really like her university to take her situation into account, whether through flexibility, financial assistance, psychosocial support, but especially through a process that facilitates requests for help and access to services.

What the university community is saying

The faculty and staff involved in supporting students tend to recognize the challenges faced by these young people and view them as students at risk of :

  • experiencing psychological distress.
  • playing the role of a caregiver.
  • lacking time for their studies.

However, these professionals are unsure whether the existing support and assistance services at their institution are appropriate for these students. Fortunately, they are open to learning more about the issues faced by young people with a mentally-ill parent and stress the importance of developing policies and supports for them.

Fortunately, help is available

Until things changes, here are some tips for these young people: it is important to use the services that are already in place. Most post-secondary institutions offer psychosocial support services. Also, consider focusing on the human and sensitive side of your professors; they want you to succeed.

There are also resources specifically for by young people with a mentally-ill parent, such as Marianne. To find out about them, visit the Aider sans filtre Web site (only in French) or consult the guide created by LaPProche: "When Your Parent Has a Mental Illness" (only in French).

Finally, be sure to reach out to your support network… You are not alone!

Our Caregiver Support service is also available to all caregivers!
Whether it is to discuss your experience or to encourage your well-treatment, our advisors are there for you:

  • Phone: 1 855 852-7784
  • Email: info-aidant@lappui.org
  • This service is free, confidential and open every day from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.


Need to talk?

Contact our Caregiver Support Helpline for counselling, information and referrals.

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