Skip to Content

Having a mental health condition and problem alcohol and drug use often creates challenges for people in their every day lives including parenting.

Health professionals and others call this combination of challenges a "dual diagnosis" or co-occurring disorders (COD) or dual pathology. To the individual it means being affected by both mental health problems and drug or alcohol use.

A mental illness is a disorder that affects the way a person thinks, feels and behaves. There are many types of mental illness,  including:

  • depression
  • anxiety
  • bipolar disorder
  • schizophrenia.

For some people, using drugs or alcohol can trigger mental health problems like depression, anxiety or psychosis. In other cases, people with mental illness use drugs or alcohol in an attempt to block out the symptoms of their illness or the side-effects of medication. Others may use drugs or alcohol to try and relieve stress or to feel better.

Where using drugs and alcohol in this way can affects physical and mental health, a person may be given a dual diagnoses so they receive the proper treatment.

Having this combination of health issues affects people differently depending on their type of mental health condition and symptoms, the drugs or alcohol used and how these factors combine together. It can also depend on the type of support or treatment a person receives.

How does having mental health and drug and alcohol concerns affect me as a parent?

Coping with mental health problems and drug or alcohol use is difficult and having the responsibility of children can be stressful. You may be feeling angry, sad, depressed, scared or high. You may find yourself experiencing lots of different moods at different times.

You may sometimes find it a bit difficult to look after your children while you are not feeling too well yourself. It’s important to know that there is support for you and your children.

As a parent, you may not be aware of the effects that your mental health problems and drug or alcohol use can have on your children.

Some of the common effects of dual diagnosis are:

  • you may find it difficult to concentrate
  • it may be hard to get organised and do your housework and shopping
  • you may find it hard to get out of bed in the morning and get your children off to school
  • you may find yourself getting angry or upset with your children
  • you may find it difficult to listen to your children or talk to them
  • you may not cope well with lots of noise, for example the sound of a baby crying or children playing
  • it may be difficult to set boundaries with your children such as when they should go to bed
  • you may feel ashamed to talk about the problems you are having with your children
  • you may not be able to care for your children and may feel afraid that your children are going to be taken away from you.

How does my illness affect my children?

Children may feel confused or frightened by the symptoms of different mental health problems or by seeing you using drugs or alcohol. Children are affected in lots of different ways. Sometimes they may:

  • try to protect the younger children by looking after them
  • feel scared, angry, sad, embarrassed, ashamed or lonely
  • blame themselves for your illness
  • worry that they will develop mental health or drug and alcohol problems
  • try to pretend that things are okay
  • be too ashamed to go to school
  • find it difficult to make friends with other children
  • find it difficult to do their homework or study
  • want to live somewhere else
  • become secretive and not want to tell you things
  • try to gain your attention by being naughty or rude.

What will happen to my children if I have to go to hospital?

If you have to go to hospital for treatment, it’s important that your children are properly cared for while you are away.

You may be able to ask a relative or friend to care for your children while you are away. Unfortunately most hospital or rehabilitation services do not provide childcare or accommodation for families but you can talk to your GP about support services that are available, including temporary arrangements.

Temporary out-of-home care arrangements for children

Sometimes children may need to be cared for by someone else while their parents are receiving the health treatment they need or until they are well enough to look after them again. This may be through relative and kinship care - where your child is placed with a relative or someone they already know, for example a grandparent - or foster care.

The time your child will spend in out-of-home care will vary depending on the child's needs and your family circumstances.

If possible, it’s good to try to organise arrangements for your children before you need to go to hospital so you have some support ready.

How can I help my children?

Even though you may be finding it hard to cope, there are lots of things you can do to help your children when your dealing with health issues. Research shows that children need a combination of warmth (praise, attention and hugs work well) and clear boundaries.

Here are some tips on how to look after your kids even when you are not feeling good:

  • if you are using drugs or alcohol, try to make sure your children are safe in the care of a sober adult while you are using and ‘coming down’
  • always store drugs, including prescription medicines, in a safe place where your children can’t get to them
  • try to set up some support people for your children to turn to when you are sick, such as a grandparent or other relative, family friend or teacher
  • enrol your children in child care, after-school services, vacation care or sporting groups. You may be able to get financial support for these services through Centrelink
  • children respond well to routine. Try and set up routines that work for you even when you are not feeling too well. For example, if you know that it’s hard for you get out of bed in the morning, get the breakfast things ready and pack lunches the night before
  • some health services offer camps or support groups where children and young people can get together for peer support and to learn coping skills
  • some children and young people whose parents are dealing with a mental health condition and also drugs and or alcohol may see a counsellor or have regular contact with a support group
  • talk to your children when you do feel well and encourage them to tell you how they feel. It's important for your children to understand that you do love them even if you are not always able to care for them
  • have a list of people and emergency phone numbers that your children can contact if they need to get some help if you are unwell. Talk to your children about what to do and keep the list in a handy place for example on the fridge or near the telephone.

Check our Parenting section for more tips on caring for babies, toddlers, children and teens and how to keep your children safe. Books like The Blue Polar Bear or The Flying Dream can be great for kids between 5 and 12 years to help them to understand what’s going on.

Finding help and support

Health and community services

It’s important that you find a doctor or support service in your area that you feel comfortable with. Some community health centres offer a service to specifically to help people coping with both mental illness and drugs and alcohol issues. If there is no such service in your area, contact your mental health or drug and alcohol teams about what service will be best for you. Depending on your mental health and drug or alcohol problems, you may be able to get treatment and support at home, without having to go to hospital or a rehabilitation centre. It's important to ask what options are available.

You can take a friend, family member or support person with you when you go to see a doctor or support service. Some services can also come to your home if transport is difficult.

Discuss your mental health and drug or alcohol concerns and treatment needs honestly with staff. Most health and support services can work together to meet your and your family’s needs, and you can identify the services you would like involved.

Parenting and family support

Local family support services offer a range of services to help parents and families experiencing stress. Services include parent education and support groups, playgroups, counselling and general support.

Some community health centres also offer programs for parents with mental health or drug and alcohol concerns. Try to get help early, before you reach crisis point.

Support networks

It is important that you get support from family, friends, community workers and support groups. You may find that your family or friends don’t understand your situation. You may also find it difficult to talk to your family or friends about what you are going through.

There are services such as volunteer home visiting programs that provide social support and can help you with the housework or take you to appointments. Ask your support worker or caseworker if programs like these are available in your area.

There is information available about dual diagnosis that will help your family and friends understand your problems.
Some helpful resources are listed here:

Sane Australia
Talk to a mental health professional (weekdays 10am-10pm)
1800 18 7263

Promoting better outcomes for children and families where a parent experiences mental illness
1800 18 7263

Alcohol and Drug Foundation
1300 85 85 84

Dual Diagnosis Australia & New Zealand
Information and resources for people with an interest in dual diagnosis and other complex needs

For urgent assistance call:

Emergency, police & ambulance
000 (24 hours)

Lifeline telephone counselling
13 11 14 (24 hours)

Suicide Call Back Service
1300 659 467 (24 hours)

Kids Helpline
1800 55 1800 (24 hours)

Was this content useful?
Your rating will help us improve the website.
Last updated: 24 Sep 2019