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The needs of children whose parents have severe mental illness should be prioritised, according to a new paper written by a consortium of international experts.

Two children painting on concrete © Shutterstock

Children living with parents with severe mental illness such as depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are at high-risk for developing mental illness themselves. 

This inter-generational transmission of severe mental illness is thought to be the result of an interplay between genetic, biological, psychological and social factors. 

Queen’s University Professor of Psychiatry Anne Duffy, and honorary member of Oxford University’s Department of Psychiatry, is the lead author on the paper, just published in the Journal of Nature Mental Health. She said:


Outside of safety concerns, the well-being needs of these high-risk children are not pro-actively considered, nor are care pathways organized to systematically address early intervention needs.”

The authors advocate that the approach to prevention and early intervention should be tailored to the developmental needs of the children and their family, as opposed to a one size fits all approach. For example, pre-natal/early childhood care for the parents in the form of mental health, health literacy, and parenting support. In middle childhood the focus should be on parent-child/family-child unit. As the child ages, the adolescent becomes the target of care and their relationship with the broader community.

The paper, which has co-authors including Sarah Goodday from Oxford University’s Department of Psychiatry, gives guidelines as to next steps in the development of policy and prevention designed to support the well-being of children at familial risk.

The article highlights why these children are an overlooked public health priority population and points to research that aims to alleviate the risk of developing mental illness and stopping the inter-generational transmission of severe mental illness.