National / Social Issues

Children of parents with mental illnesses launch support group, setting sights on events across Japan

Kyodo

People in Japan raised by those with mental illnesses, who often face fear and anxiety due to the difficulty understanding their parents’ conditions, are launching a group to share their experiences and offer mutual support.

Nursing professionals, meanwhile, are publishing a book of memoirs by such children in a bid to spread awareness about the need for the support.

A child’s development and life are greatly affected if one or both parents suffer from mental illness, which brings various hardships for the children in adulthood. But it was only recently that the need to support such children was widely acknowledged, according to Keiko Yokoyama, a professor of psychiatric nursing at Saitama Prefectural University. Yokoyama has engaged in a range of support programs for families of such parents.

The group, called Kodomo Pia (Children Peer), is scheduled to be officially launched in late January, starting its activities after Yokoyama took a cue from mutual support programs for families offered by the Community Mental Health & Welfare Bonding Organization.

The nonprofit organization, known as COMHBO, has hosted study events for families of patients with mental illnesses. While the organization mainly targets parents of the mentally disabled, Yokoyama saw the need to help children too, and started organizing events in 2015 with other supporters.

At the events, participants talk about their experiences and open up about their feelings. They often look back on their past — from early childhood through adulthood.

“I witnessed participants recovering the true self they had been oppressing,” Yokoyama said.

Ayuna Kobayashi, a 27-year-old deputy leader of the group, said her mother developed schizophrenia, suffering from visual and auditory hallucinations, when she was in elementary school, although her mother could not admit to the illness. Being afraid that nobody would help, “I grew up without learning how to depend on others,” Kobayashi said.

Kobayashi went to nursing school and gradually developed an understanding of her mother’s illness. Then her feelings toward her mother changed and Kobayashi started doing what she could for her mother, leading to an improvement in her condition.

After getting acquainted with others in similar situations at Kodomo Pia events, she was able finally to face herself, Kobayashi said. “I want to tell (others) ‘you are not alone.’ ”

Taku Sakamoto, a 26-year-old psychiatric social worker who heads Kodomo Pia, devoted himself while he was in school to taking care of his mother, who suffered depression and had a panic disorder.

After taking a supporter job, Sakamoto realized that family members of mentally ill people do not have to bear the whole brunt of caring for them.

“There are some things I could figure out through connections with my peers. I wish to be of help to others, especially the younger generation, by being out in public and speaking out,” Sakamoto said.

The number of patients in Japan with mental illnesses has been on the rise, totaling some 3.92 million in a 2014 survey by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry. The number of such patients getting married and having children will also increase.

Given the circumstances, Yokoyama compiled the experiences of nine participants in the study events into a book as part of efforts to inform people about the situation these children face.

The book, edited jointly with Masako Kageyama, an associate professor of public health and nursing at Osaka University, will be published on Friday by Akashi Shoten Co.

“It is an improvement that the need to support children is drawing attention, but many supporters are still concerned about only preventing child abuse by (mentally ill) parents,” Kageyama said. “It may be more important to help realize their natural hopes of becoming parents at as early a stage as possible,” she said.

Study events for people raised by parents suffering mental disorders have so far been held in Tokyo. With the launch of Kodomo Pia, its members hope to expand the activities nationwide.