The reality of loving an adult child with severe mental illness

Written by a community member. 

As a mother of an adult child with a serious mental illness, I am completely heartbroken by the horror that unfolded at Bondi last weekend, resulting in the tragic loss of innocent lives. 

I wept as I listened to the parents of the individual responsible—their shock, dismay, grief, and confusion.  Their son, now labelled the ‘Bondi Murderer’ or ‘Crazy Lunatic’ by the media, is a devastating burden they now carry.

The media's question to these parents— “What do you say to the families of the people that your son killed?”— has cast them into complicity in these murders, merely because they brought this adult child into the world.  None of us can comprehend the unimaginable guilt, shame, and ambivalent grief these parents must process. They are now burdened with guilt by association.

The reality is, we don’t know what role – if any – mental illness played in this. But we do know that people with severe and complex mental illness are rarely violent. They’re more likely to be a victim of violence. They fight a devastating and debilitating cycle of discrimination, stigma, and disadvantage. 

It’s not fair, or helpful to compress a complicated and devastating tragedy into a soundbite. 

But there’s some truth to it. The mental health system is failing, and we need to talk about it. 

Loving and at times living with adult children with severe mental illness exacts a heavy toll on a family. Emergency room visits become distressing encounters, where mental illness is often treated as a lesser emergency. Doctors and nurses express annoyance at needing to manage your psychotic and distressed adult child, who wanders and won't conform to their demands. As a parent, you find yourself stripped of rights and often devoid of hope in managing the situation. The pressure from staff to keep your child out of the way adds to the weight you already carry. Mothers, especially, find themselves under a spotlight—held accountable for what their child is going through, as if maternal influence is solely responsible according to psychological theories and societal norms.

The truth is far more complex. Parenting a child with severe mental illness involves a relentless cycle of advocacy and exhaustion. Our roles extend beyond nurturing to navigating an often-inadequate mental health system that fails to provide adequate support or resources. We are caught between a desire to protect our children and the harsh reality of limited options for effective treatment and care.

The stigma attached to mental illness only compounds our struggles.  Society’s misunderstanding of mental health perpetuates blame and shame, leaving families isolated in their pain. We need empathy and understanding, not judgment. The weight of responsibility is overwhelming, yet our love for our children remains unwavering.

The reality of supporting an adult child with severe mental illness often involves receiving numerous calls from the police—some officers more understanding than others. There's the shock, dismay, and embarrassment of the chaotic situations your adult child finds themselves in. Constant problem-solving becomes a necessity to undo the damage caused each time, not to mention the financial obligations that arise from fixing these problems repeatedly.

Where is the mental health system’s responsibility in helping individuals with severe mental illness?  Why is it acceptable to let such unwell individuals slip through the cracks? There is a profound lack of social responsibility among some professionals to follow up and maintain contact, and if necessary, monitor the welfare of these vulnerable individuals.  The burden on families is overwhelming. Many family members cannot provide the level of help needed—they are simply mothers, fathers, siblings, or partners.  They are not trained mental health professionals, yet they are often the first people blamed when tragedy strikes.  Families become alternative first responders, struggling to secure assistance from the legitimate first responders.

The strain on families like mine is immense. We are left to navigate a system that is complex and frequently fails those who need it most. Our voices are often drowned out by bureaucracy and a lack of resources. It’s a heartbreaking reality that many families of individuals with severe mental illness face daily.

We need a fundamental shift in how mental health care is approached and delivered. Prevention, early intervention, and ongoing support must become the cornerstone of mental health services.  Families must be empowered with resources and guidance, not burdened with blame and guilt. 
Our society needs to prioritise mental health care as a basic human right, ensuring that no one falls through the cracks.

Let us demand accountability from our leaders and advocate for policies that prioritise mental health. Let us stand together in solidarity with families affected by mental illness and work towards a future where support and compassion replace stigma and neglect.

To every parent across the country who loves and cares for an adult child with a serious mental illness – I see you. I understand. You are not alone.



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