Mental illness and parenthood: being a parent in secure psychiatric care

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Abstract

Background

Research into parenting and mental illness seldom includes forensic mental health service users, despite its relevance to therapeutic, family work and risk management.

Aims

This study aimed to understand the experiences of parents and the variety of parenting roles maintained during admission to a secure forensic hospital.

Methods

Narrative interviews with 18 parents (eight mothers and 10 fathers) at an English medium security hospital were analysed thematically, using the framework approach. The proportion of patients who are parents and their contact patterns with their children were estimated from records.

Results

About a quarter of men and 38% of women were parents. Parenthood was of central importance to their emotional life, spanning experiences of loss, shame and failed expectations, joy, responsibility and hope. Fewer fathers maintained contact with their children than mothers yet fatherhood remained a vital aspect of men's identities, with impact on their self-esteem. Parenting during lengthy admissions – while constrained and dependent on professional support and surveillance – ranged from sending gifts and money to visits and phone calls. Offending was seen as a particularly shameful aspect of admission, contributing to distancing from the children and difficulty explaining detention to them.

Conclusions

Such complex experiences call for multidisciplinary knowledge and skills. Provision of focused therapy, as well as appropriate visiting spaces, creative approaches to contact time and support for patients in explaining their mental illness and detention to their children are recommended. © 2015 The Authors. Criminal Behaviour and Mental Health published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

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