Before starting to assess risk for a child, think about how to keep the child’s experiences central to practice.
A parent with a mental health issue doesn’t always mean a child is at risk
Many children grow up healthy, happy and safe in families where a parent has a mental health issue. This is linked to other protective factors, such as parent’s willingness to seek help and treatment for their illness, a strong safety and support network for the child and parent, the parent’s capacity to hold their child’s needs in mind, an effective plan if the parent becomes unwell, and the child’s own unique capabilities and strengths to manage adversity.
Think about what the mental health issue means for the parent’s behaviour and what this behaviour means for a child. Be curious and adaptive.
A diagnosis won’t provide insight into risk and safety
A mental health assessment may help to find out a parent’s needs and how they can be supported to recover and heal. It will be unlikely to provide insight into the child’s experience, risk or safety.
Be thoughtful about intentions in asking a parent to be assessed for mental health issues. Have a clear purpose about what this will help achieve, and communicate this to the family. Be guided by the family’s views on getting this assessment. Consider if this will cause more stress for the family, and what this stress might mean for the child.
Use language carefully
Pathologising language can change mindset and analysis of risk. It can impact on thinking as well as what is said. It can also get in the way of clear judgment and decision making. It can stop parents from feeling they can change and move forward.
Choose language carefully when talking to families about what mental health means to them. Use words that empower, give hope and encourages. Learn more about language in the Overview section.
Think about the big picture
Using a narrow focus and thinking only about the parent’s mental illness will give a limited view of the risks to a child and how best to keep them safe. Other issues that place a family under pressure might also be missed, such as domestic and family violence, poverty, alcohol and drug use. It may also limit a holistic understanding the family’s strengths and resources.
Think beyond the information in recorded on ICMS, the parent’s diagnosis, or the opinion of one professional. Gather information, talk to everyone in the family, and speak to other professionals. Seek advice from the team and other specialists. Use practice experience of engaging with the family to inform decisions.
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