Mothers with mental illness benefit from extended family support

Mothers with mental illnesses who lived with their children and extended family fared significantly better than mothers who live only with their children or with their kids and a spouse/partner, a newly published University of Michigan study indicated.

In addition, African American mothers living with extended families had better daily functions and less parenting stress than whites in similar living environments, which were more negative, stressful and conflictual, said lead author Carol Mowbray, a professor in the School of Social Work.

Researchers studied the impact of living arrangements on the well-being of three groups of mothers living with children — those who lived alone, those who lived with a husband/partner, and those who lived in an extended family, which would include grandparents. The National Institute of Mental Health study involved 379 mothers from the Detroit area.

Women participating in the study were between 18 to 55 years of age, cared for at least one child aged four to 16, and suffered severe mental illness, such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. The sample included 65 percent African-American, 34 percent non-Hispanic and 1 percent Hispanic. The median family income for the participating women was $1,094 per month; the majority lived below the poverty line.

Living with relatives, the researchers said, may promote the well-being of mothers through provision of increased support. In other words, mothers who receive more emotional support have been found to be more nurturing in their parenting.

“This is important information for service providers and future researchers,” said Leslie Hollingsworth, associate professor of social work. “It may be that the quality of the parenting received by children of mothers with serious mental illness is not just a matter of the presence of a mental illness but of the emotional support received by the parent.”

The study showed that African American mothers had more children, on average, than white mothers; more positive social support; and greater satisfaction with their relationships with children. White mothers, on the other hand, reported higher income, more work/school/volunteer involvement, more financial worries and more stressful life groups.

“Our study results are important because they demonstrate that women with mental illness can parent their children adequately, even in situations of low income and other hardships, provided they are given support,” said Mowbray, who also serves as director of the School’s Center for Poverty, Risk, and Mental Health. “For some women, extended families can offer that support. For other women, human service systems may need to construct the needed support for them.”

Mowbray, Hollingsworth, Sara Goodkind and Daphna Oyserman—all from U-M, conducted the research, which appeared in the March issue of Social Work Research. Another author, Deborah Bybee, is from Michigan State University.

From University of Michigan

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