Depressive symptoms among children whose parents have serious mental illness: Association with children’s threat-related beliefs about mental illness

Bolanle Ola, Rakendu Suren, Cornelius Ani


Background. Sixty-eight per cent of women and 57% of men with mental illness are parents. There is increasing evidence of adverse psychosocial impact of parental mental illness on their children. However, among children whose parents have mental illness, the potential contribution of the children’s beliefs about mental illness to their own emotional distress is still poorly understood.

Aim. To explore among children whose parents have serious mental illness, the relationship between the children’s beliefs about mental illness and their own depressive symptoms.

Methodology. We conducted an interview-administered questionnaire survey of 67 Nigerian children whose parents were psychiatric inpatients. The children’s beliefs about mental illness were explored with five questions – two of which embedded threat-related beliefs. Their depressive symptoms were assessed with the Short Mood and Feelings Questionnaire (SMFQ) (Cronbach alpha 0.91). Based on stigma theory, we hypothesised that among this cohort, the children who hold threat-related beliefs about people with mental illness would report statistically significantly more depressive symptoms than those without similar beliefs. 

Results. The mean age (standard deviation (SD)) of the children was 13.3 (2.8) years, and 38% were males. Twenty-four per cent of the children believed mental illness is infectious. In line with our hypothesis, those holding this belief had statistically significantly more depressive symptoms compared with those without similar beliefs (p=0.001). Fifty-seven per cent of the children believed that people with mental illness are dangerous. However, contrary to our hypothesis, this belief was not associated with increased depressive symptoms (p=0.2). Multiple regression showed that statistically significant predictors of increased emotional symptoms were ‘belief that mental illness is infectious’ and younger age. The model explained 39.8% of the variance in SMFQ.

Conclusion. In this and similar settings, psycho-education for children whose parents have serious mental illness should explore whether the children believe that mental illness is infectious. Providing reassurance to children holding such beliefs could reduce their risk of psychological distress.


Parental mental illness; children's beliefs; depressive symptoms

Full Text:



Submitted: 06 September 2014
Published: 01 August 2015

African Online Scientific Information Systems (Pty) Ltd t/a AOSIS
Reg No: 2002/002017/07
RSA Tel: 086 1000 381
International Tel: +27 21 975 2602
15 Oxford Street, Durbanville, Cape Town, 7550, South Africa
publishing(AT) replace (AT) with @

All articles published in this journal are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) license, unless otherwise stated.
Website design & content: ©2018 AOSIS (Pty) Ltd. All rights reserved. No unauthorised duplication allowed.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Get specific, domain-collection newsletters detailing the latest CPD courses, scholarly research and call-for-papers in your field.


South African Journal of Psychiatry    |    ISSN: 1608-9685 (PRINT)    |    ISSN: 2078-6786 (ONLINE)