Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:40 pm
When a parent has mental illness, the entire family can be torn apart, and children can become invisible to the social welfare system. To address that disconnect, the Mental Health Association (MHA) in Milwaukee County, under the guidance of president and chief executive officer Martha Rasmus, created the Invisible Children’s Program (ICP) to address the gap in services available to families and reduce the negative impact mental illness has on a family.
“Parents with a mental illness face some serious challenges such as dealing with loss of custody, lack of family support, lack of services and a lack of specialized programs to help them,” Rasmus says.
Typically, when a parent with mental illness enters the health system, treatment for the illness becomes the primary focus, Rasmus says.
Like many parents, these parents with mental illness may sacrifice their own well-being to meet the perceived needs of their families. When family needs are not supported and acknowledged, the result may be neglect, violent behavior, abuse, depression or suicide.
The children become at risk for out-of-home placement, adjudication and mental illness.
“I attended a national conference where this program was discussed,” Rasmus says. “It’s where a parent has mental illness and is raising children. A light bulb went on, because Milwaukee didn’t pay attention to that group at all.”
The ICP is a psychosocial program, Rasmus says.
“I really feel parents with mental illness can really be good parents if given the support and education they need,” she says.
ICP has “family advocates,” who serve as case managers. They’re called family advocates because the MHA’s philosophy is to empower, not manage, families, Rasmus says.
“We help parents become the best parents they can be and to understand their illness so they can manage their illness. We keep the family together,” Rasmus says. “So, what we really do now is work very closely with the child welfare system. We come in immediately to work with child welfare to stabilize and teach parents what they need in order to have a stable, safe environment for their child.”
Parents should not be discriminated against if they have a mental illness, Rasmus says.
“If we could make their biological home better, more nurturing, that’s where kids belong. ICP serves that population,” she says.
The ICP provides one-on-one case management and education for parents on parenting and how to parent with mental illness. Further, the program provides resources for the isolated population of adults, so they can come together and share stories and support.
“They’re usually in poverty. Many are single,” Rasmus says. “There’s a lot of shame and stigma around their illness. They can be with other people and families who are similar.”
Another important aspect for Rasmus is the educational support ICP provides for the children of the parents.
“One of our teenage girls had been in the program with her mom for about a year,” Rasmus says. “She sat in the corner with her arms folded and didn’t participate. Until one day, she realized the other kids there were in the same situation. She began to talk and share the frustrations and pain. She had a place she felt safe to do that.”
Through a trust fund, Rasmus and the MHA are creating a family center for the parents.
Currently, the MHA serves 25 families comprised of 25 to 30 adults and 50 to 60 children. However, that’s just a small part of the population that could benefit from the program, Rasmus says. There are more than 300 other families in Milwaukee County who have adults on disability for mental illness, she says.
Rasmus took leadership of the MHA in 1998. Since then, the MHA’s reach has expanded to Madison and Rheinlander. Because of this expansion, the MHA in Milwaukee County will undergo a name change this month to become the MHA of Wisconsin, to better reflect the expanded geographic scope of its work.
“Unfortunately, when people think about advancements in health care, they rarely think about mental health or mental illness,” Rasmus says. “And yet, the impact people with mental illness have on our health care systems is tremendous.”