Raising a child can be a stressful task for any parent, but is particularly challenging for mothers with serious mental illness, who often must cope with a range of other stressors, says Daryn David, PhD, of Yale University School of Medicine. Studies show that mothers with severe mental illness are prone to poverty, low social support, substance abuse, trauma and homelessness. To top it off, they are also hesitant to seek parenting supports from mental health providers, for fear of losing custody of their children if they speak out about their parenting needs.
"Severely mentally ill women are an underserved population," says David. In her work as an intern at the Connecticut Mental Health Center, she found that caring for children and regaining custody are often prime motivators for why moms seeks treatment in the first place, but that parenting is not adequately addressed in treatment planning.
David is hoping to help moms get the additional support they need, thanks to a $12,000 Pearson Early Career Grant from the American Psychological Foundation and a partnership with Connecticut's Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services Young Adult teams. First, she will host focus groups with young mothers affected by mental illness so that they may voice their parenting needs. Based on their input, David will create and distribute supportive pamphlets on parenting through several community mental health centers in Connecticut.
"We're going to be drawing on [these mothers'] expertise and asking them what would make life easier and how we can reflect that in a pamphlet," explains David.
To see if the pamphlets work, David will survey 25 mothers about their parenting expertise and comfort level in discussing parenting before and after they receive the pamphlet. She will then compare their responses with a group of mothers who don't get supplemental parenting information.
Her goal is to ease the young mothers' stress by boosting their confidence in their parenting skills and encouraging them to raise questions about child-rearing with their regular treatment providers, says David.
Qualitative data suggest that similar public health interventions in Australia and Great Britain may have a beneficial impact on families and for reducing the stigma surrounding parenting with mental illness, says David. Her hope is that this study will provide systematic evaluation of the utility of supported parenting pamphlets here in the United States.
"If these resources do work, we hope to disseminate them more broadly, which will help eliminate the stigma surrounding mothers with [severe mental illness], and open up the dialogue about this topic," says David.
David is the second recipient of the APF Pearson Early Career Grant.
Pearson awarded this grant to APF to support areas of critical need in society through the foundation. The information gleaned from this project epitomizes Pearson's commitment to be "always learning."
Pearson provides educational materials, technologies, assessments and related services to teachers and students of all ages.
Colleen Wilson is a writer in College Park, Md.
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