Parental mental disorders have a dramatic impact on the next generation. In particular, offspring of parents with major mental disorders have an elevated risk of developing a mental disorder. Based on that assumption, the aim of this study was to evaluate the impact of parental mental illness on children of psychiatric inpatients. The children were evaluated through the perception of the caregiver during the hospitalization and their own perception and these evaluations were then correlated with clinical data of the hospitalized parent. We found that the offspring of inpatients presented high risk for psychopathology as well as impairment in the quality of life. A large proportion of the children was referred for specialized evaluation, especially those whose inpatient parent and/or caregiver during admission presented severe symptoms of psychopathology. As far as we could verify, this was the first study in Brazil evaluating the offspring of psychiatric inpatients.
Studies on children and adolescent psychopathology are relatively rare in low- and middle-income countries . A large part of the research addressing the influence of parental psychopathology in offspring study adults [43,44,45]. Most of the studies to date have examined community samples. In a worldwide meta-analytic study, Polanczyk et al. determined that there was a 8.3% (in Africa) and 14.2% (in South America and Caribbean) prevalence of mental disorders in children and adolescents in the community . In non-clinical samples of Brazilian children and adolescents, the prevalence of mental disorders range from 13% (in younger children)  to 30% (for common mental disorders in adolescents) . In a high-risk cohort, Salum et al. reported mental disorder prevalence to be 19.9% of mental disorders from a random sample and 29.7% in the high-risk strata . As such, the prevalence of 38.3% of mental disorders in our sample is higher than community non-clinical and high-risk samples. This result was higher than the 32% of psychopathology found in children of German parents with severe mental disorders . This rate is also higher than the 23.7% prevalence of any psychopathology in children of patients with depression in the UK .
In our study, the hospitalized parent of 70.6% of the 34 children was their primary caregiver prior to psychiatric hospitalization. This may indicate that they were in the custody of parents that were potentially compromised in their care skills. Data from the UK show that at least a quarter of adults admitted to hospital settings (acute settings) have dependent children and between 50 and 66% of people with severe mental illness live with children under 18 years of age . The intense relationship between children and seriously ill caregivers with psychiatric disorders often produces disorganized families and may lead to the development of pathologies in these children. The literature is extensive on the subject of growing with a mentally ill parent and the increased risk of persistent emotional and behavioral disorders in these children [25, 49,50,51]. Emotional and behavioral problems are related to low social competence . In addition, the relationship with the child may be compromised, as studies report that parents with mental illness have problems with parenting in daily life, including difficulties in talking to children about their mental illness, maintaining discipline, and giving limits. Parental behavior can change due to disease symptoms or side effects of medications. Moreover, feelings of guilt, shame, and fear regarding adverse effects can also affect the parent’s relationship with the children . Furthermore, when the primary caregiver is hospitalized, there may be an abrupt change in the dynamics of care of these children and the substitute caregiver does not always has a close link with them.
In addition to the mentally ill parent, we found that almost half of the children caregivers during the parent’s hospitalization had moderate (29.2%) to severe (16.7%) distress symptoms. Furthermore, the distress symptoms of caregivers were significantly associated with scores of emotional and conduct problems and internalizing symptoms. Thus, even when separated from their more psychiatric-diseased parent, half of these children were still exposed to caregivers (the other parent or other family member) with significant psychiatric symptoms. Studies have shown that when both parents are affected by psychopathology, the offspring have at least a double risk of psychopathology, behavior problems, or suicide [11, 17].
The quality of life (QOL) was impaired in 61.8% of our sample of children from psychiatric inpatients. Additionally, we found a significant negative association of high magnitude among several WHOQOL domains and emotional, conduct and internalizing problems in adolescents. Furthermore, was found a significant positive association of moderate magnitude between the Prosocial Scale and QOF in children. These results corroborate previous findings that parents with more serious illnesses are expected to have children with impaired quality of life, emotional distress, and behavior problems . Although there are many questions about the term quality of life, and this term is considered by many authors to be difficult to evaluate , studies have shown that mentally ill children have a lower health-related quality of life (HRQL) than healthy or somatically ill children . The effect of having a mentally ill parent on QOL may be related to mental distress and may evolve into more serious problems in the future.
The well-being of children of inpatients with mental disorders is a aspect that is not systematically collected by institutions, since the focus of the intervention remains centered on the inpatient. When the relative is hospitalized, it is an opportunity for the health service to protect and potentially strengthen the bond between the children their parents and promote the detection of mental problems and well-being of the children . The results of our study indicate that there is a major need to evaluate and refer to the treatment of the children of inpatients who are often neglected due to the serious health situation of their main caregiver. Of the children evaluated in the present study, 17.8% were already in treatment, which may be considered a low rate for a population at risk. In addition, we found that another 41% of the children had some mental health problem that needed specialized evaluation, so they were referred to specialized professionals. Early intervention and prevention offer the possibility to avoid mental health problems in adults and improve personal well-being and productivity .
It was determined that in relation to parental diagnoses, unipolar depression was prevalent in 52% of hospitalized relatives. This is often an incapacitating psychiatric illness that leads to difficulties in self-care and self-management. These difficulties can have repercussions on family relationships and impact the lives of the children. Descendants of parents with major depression disorders have higher rates of psychiatric disorder than children of parents who are not affected. Children with unipolar depression are more likely to have a parent with unipolar depression than other parental diseases . Common parenting styles among parents with depression, such as low levels of child monitoring, may also play a role in the development of childhood mental health problems . Hammen  found that the patterns of parenting established by depressed mothers can be learned by their children, who later parent the same way and maintain negative patterns of interaction over generations. Most studies examining parental mental illness have assessed adults with depressive symptoms and have found a 3–4 fold increase in symptomatology in children compared to controls . The type of psychiatric illness, severity, associated impairments, as well as the degree of support from other family members seems to influence this risk. Compared with children of healthy parents, those living with serious mental illness may also be exposed to greater material deprivation, increased adult responsibilities and self-care, and increased risk of maltreatment and neglect .
The adequate identification of children at risk allows a quick referral for care. The possibility of intervention and follow-up of these children could reduce the suffering and psychiatric symptoms in children and adolescents, as shown by international strategies and studies like Preventive Basic Care Management (PBCM) , and Let’s Talk in Australia , which are programs that aim to identify if the children of patients with mental disorders situations need intervention and to promote well-being and quality of life. Screening and early intervention in children from high-risk psychopathology groups is a challenge that needs to be addressed. In tertiary environments, the first step is to identify patients with children, which is often difficult because they are not questioned and such information is not recorded in medical records. This is a subject that is rarely touched upon in medical practice and is still stigmatized because it is very difficult for parents to talk about these problems with their doctors . There is evidence that both children and parents benefit from adequate identification, as this may influence the treatment and recovery of psychiatric illness. Thus, identifying and supporting an individual’s parenting role can provide hope, a sense of action, self-determination, and meaning, all aligned with a recovery approach. For those parents with a mental illness, parental support can provide a sense of competence, belonging, identity, hope and meaning that is well aligned with the concept of personal recovery . In addition to the arguments of how societal costs can be reduced by early intervention, there is also ethical responsibility to the most vulnerable young people, who can have their full developmental potential thwarted . We still have a lot to do for these children and adolescents in order to identify risk situations, try to alleviate suffering and prevent new diseases.
This study has several limitations. First, our sample size is very small, which excluded the ability to use several analytical strategies. Our sample size suffered a lot of losses due to logistical difficulties (i.e., location of caregivers, difficulties of accessing them to the hospital, and refusal of many parents to allow the evaluation of their children) and the non-routinization of this type of assessment in the unit. However, we believe that the data presented is significant and may still be underestimate the effect of having a parent with mental illness on the well-being of a child. Nevertheless, we are implementing an evaluation routine for children of inpatients based this study. Second, the sample consisted of patients and their children from only one psychiatric unit, which decreases its external validity. However, since screening programs are not usually used in our environment, we believe that our data is indicative of a much larger problem, and replications will be required. In addition, short hospitalizations, with less than a week, also made some evaluations unviable. Finally, the data on psychopathology in children were collected from their caregivers, which may have influenced the evaluation, since many of them also exhibited psychiatric symptoms. However, quality of life assessments were conducted directly with children and adolescents, allowing a more direct measure of the impact of parental symptoms in their lives.
This work reinforces the importance of the routine screening of psychopathology in children of hospitalized psychiatric patients. Several barriers related to economic factors, integration of the health system, inadequate insurance coverage and unavailability, and overloading of the teams make it difficult for children and adolescents to access health services . The development of assistance is also hampered by lack of government policy, inadequate funding, and a dearth of trained professionals . Thus, we believe that the insertion of the evaluation routine of children of patients can be an important step for the identification of vulnerable children and adolescents stresses the need for institutions and governments to construct public policies that prioritize this issue.