by Monica Ross
Shortly after publishing my post in the Elephant Journal, a year ago now, a man living in Pennsylvania reached out to me via LinkedIn. He told me about work that a woman named Suzette Misrachi is doing in Australia and he introduced the two of us.
She published a thesis in 2012 called “Lives Unseen: Unacknowledged Trauma of Non-Disordered, Competent Adult Children of Parents with a Severe Mental Illness (ACOPSMI). There is a link to that work here.
Suzette had spent many years as a mental health practitioner working with the medicaid/medicare population in Australia, similar to the work I have done here in the U.S. Her practice drew her to the topic of adults who grew up with a parent who was mentally ill and how often these adults themselves would complain of anxiety or self-esteem issues though living for the most part fully functioning and healthy adult lives.
Her clients it appeared were suffering from the trauma they experienced as children with a somewhat unusual upbringing. She witnessed these adults feeling vulnerable, lonely, detached, and ashamed at times when living out their adult lives in relationship to the experiences they had growing up with parents with a severe mental health issue.
Her research took her away from those clients who experienced any type of comorbidity. So, she did not focus her work on those adults who themselves went on to experience substance abuse or behavioral or mental health issues like their parents. Instead, she focused more on those adults who later went on to lead for the most part successful lives.
She points out that often for these clients they may have had one parent with an official diagnosis of mental illness while the other was suspected of having a mental health diagnosis. At the same time neither parent may have had an official diagnosis, but these adults who grew up with caregivers with severe mental illness later went on to report feeling as though they survived significant trauma often in the form of having parents who were in some ways neglectful.
Misrachi goes on to say that these clients may have been labeled noncaring for not assuming a caregiver role of their parents by a society that disaffirms the adult child of a parent with severe mental illness’s traumatic experiences growing up to begin with. She states that this often fed into her clients' reasons for not having assumed a caregiving role of their parents in the first place.
In addition, these clients of hers were often viewed in some ways as 'better off' by society she states than their parents, which she observed led to her clients’ needs continuing to go unseen. In other words, for these now adults who had caregivers with a severe mental illness when they were children, there was some invisibility to both their experiences and needs as children and now as adults.
She goes on to talk about the grief experienced by these clients regarding a parent with a severe mental illness, who depending on the severity of the illness, are in a state of consciousness that signals a type of psychological instead of physical death of a loved one and an often continuous state of mourning.
This chronic sorrow or continuous sorrow that might be experienced with nonfinite loss, she points out, can lead the person experiencing it to almost wish at times for the source of the loss to finally physically die in order to reach an endpoint to the suffering. And with that comes guilt for the person wishing the end.
Other researchers have defined it as a type of a loss of something that should have been but was not--the loss of never having that full functioning competent caregiver for which one would have wished. People experiencing this type of grief often find that it is publicly unacknowledged grief, which can lead to further feelings of isolation.
As a child myself of one or both parents experiencing a serious mental illness hereditary or organic as I have noted elsewhere, I can relate to a lot of the things that Misrachi points out in her thesis and I think that it is an important contribution to the literature that she is making both in Australia and internationally.