Significant numbers of children in the U.S. have at least one parent who abuses drugs and/or alcohol. Current evidence indicates that such a situation adds to environmental conditions that increase any given child’s chances of developing diagnosable problems with mental illness. In a study published in July 2014 in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, a team of researchers from Old Dominion University sought to determine if parents involved in serious substance abuse have an increased likelihood of interfering with their children’s access to treatment for mental health problems.
Parental Substance Abuse
There are no federally sponsored programs that comprehensively examine the number of American children with parents who abuse drugs and/or alcohol. Hindrances to accurate numbers include a lack of consistent reporting from agencies tasked with tracking child welfare and lack of a single clearinghouse for reported results. Despite these problems, the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration does make periodic efforts to determine how many children in the U.S. have at least one parent involved in significant substance abuse. Estimates made by this agency in the early 2000s indicated that roughly 6 million children (at that time, about 9 percent of all American kids) lived in such household conditions.
A parent seriously affected by problems with drugs or alcohol can experience a range of impairments to his or her ability to provide a safe, nurturing environment for a child. Specific examples of these impairments include mental and/or physical dysfunction triggered by the substance in question, use of finite family resources for the acquisition of drugs or alcohol, increased odds of perpetrating or incurring acts of domestic violence, a decreased likelihood of receiving support from loved ones inside and outside the family unit, repeated encounters with the legal system and the devotion of substantial time and energy to either substance use or recovery from substance use.
Children And Mental Health
Being raised by a parent with diagnosable substance-related problems is one of the known factors that increase a young child’s odds of eventually developing a mental illness, (PDF) the World Health Organization reports. In fact, children raised in such circumstances have approximately the same mental health risks as children raised by a parent diagnosed with his or her own case of mental illness. Younger children also have heightened risks for developing mental illness when their parents are engaged in some form of domestic violence, or when their parents otherwise clearly fail to create a stable home environment. Since parents affected by substance problems are also particularly likely to create an unstable environment, their young children commonly experience overlapping risks to mental well-being. Older children of substance-abusing parents have increased chances of getting involved in the use of drugs and/or alcohol themselves; in turn, such involvement creates its own additional mental illness risks.
Do Substance-Abusing Parents Interfere With Mental Health Care For Their Kids?
In the study published in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, the Old Dominion University researchers used anonymously gathered information from a sample of adults seeking outpatient treatment for substance abuse in the state of New York to determine if substance-abusing parents have an unusual tendency to deny their children access to treatment for mental illness. The researchers also sought to determine if the gender of the substance-abusing parent has an effect on the willingness to provide a child with appropriate treatment access. Examples of the forms of treatment under consideration included family-oriented approaches and approaches that involve only the child.
The researchers concluded that only roughly 33 percent of the parents involved in the study would agree to let their children seek treatment for mental illness. About 41 percent of the mothers would provide their children with access, while just 28 percent of the fathers would make such a provision. This gender-based disparity held true even when the researchers conducted an additional analysis that took the age of an affected child into account.
The study’s authors found that the type of substance used by a parent had no particular influence on his or her desire to let a child receive treatment for mental illness. Overall, they concluded that substance-abusing parents’ reluctance to provide access to mental health treatment for their children constitutes a meaningful hindrance to the receipt of appropriate care. This is especially crucial, since children raised by such parents clearly have multiplied risks for developing a mental illness.
Read Our Other Posts On Teen Mental Health