Families and Mental Health

Healthy family relationships are a protective factor for mental health. If able to trust and rely on each other for support, family relationships help make us feel loved and safe.

Positive shared family experiences help build the bank of strong connection and bond. Feeling like a part of a family creates a sense of belonging, which can make people feel good about themselves.

Some mental health conditions have a genetic component, and although environmental factors play a big part, it is common to see a pattern of mental health from generation to generation. Our family and close friends can be the ones that identify changes in behaviour, and out of care may raise their concerns for wellbeing and mental health. Responsibility and concern for loved ones can be the most significant preventative factor when a person becomes suicidal.

Stressful life events can put a strain on family relationships. Things like changes at work, unemployment, the loss of a loved one, or illness are challenges that uniquely affect each family member. Learning how to support each other healthily is essential to protect and to get the most out of a great relationship. Support is available through organisations like Relationships Australia, who provide counselling services to couples and families.

Domestic Violence

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reports 23 percent of women and 16 percent of men have experienced abuse in a relationship. Every day, women and men are hospitalised due to assault from their spouse or partner, and one woman per week and one man per month lose their lives in Australia to domestic violence.

Experiencing or witnessing family violence (physical or emotional) can have lifelong impacts on children and may increase the chance of developing a mental illness.

There is a critical role for workplaces in response to domestic violence. There has been extensive research on how domestic violence carries into the workplace and how organisations can best respond to supporting workers involved. Some resources can be found at Our Watch or White Ribbon.

Separation and Divorce

One of the hardest challenges to navigate in life is the break down of a relationship with a partner. Many facets of our lives are linked to our relationships, and can either change dramatically or be lost at the end of the union. At a practical level, there are changes to housing and belongings, finances, and regular routines. Perhaps employment changes as well. Social networks and relationships with extended family members can change or end.

On an emotional level, plans and dreams will invariably alter, and it may take a few years or more before a new vision of a different future becomes clear.  

The pain of separation can be worse if you did not want the divorce, or if it has happened suddenly. Grieving the loss is common, whether you instigated the separation or not. As are feelings of shock, frustration, anger, powerlessness, and overwhelm. Everyone experiences separation differently, and depending on the circumstances, there may be happiness or relief and optimism about the future. There is no single “normal” response to the end of a long term relationship.


Regardless of how a relationship ends when there are children involved all parties must respect their vulnerability in the situation.

Parentline identifies eight issues that parents struggle with:

  1. Dealing with unresolved feelings or issues – and the resulting arguments
  2. Worrying that one parent will get less time with the kids than the other
  3. Clashes in parenting style or views
  4. Difficulty with decision making – when you can’t seem to agree
  5. One parent wanting to spend more or less time with the kids
  6. Last-minute changes to plans
  7. Kids being emotionally affected by the separation or divorce
  8. Adjustment to step-parents

And tips for successful co-parenting:

  • Work together
  • Be flexible and roll with the changes
  • Support the kids to feel connected to each parent
  • Keep an open mind to different parenting styles
  • Take time to help the kids understand the changes
  • Try and be organised and plan – keep your ex in the loop
  • Be clear in decision making
  • Avoid discussions when upset or angry
  • Compromise where you can – meet in the middle
  • Communicate respectfully and calmly with your ex
  • Remember to keep the kids’ best interests a priority
  • Be prepared for different emotions from the kids (sadness, anger)

Parenting is challenging in a close, loving relationship. Co-parenting after separation and divorce requires even more investment and care in communicating well and trying to see the other parent’s perspective. Take extra care to work through things slowly and consciously through the actual separation phase and the early days afterward. Time will make navigating co-parenting easier, as long as care has been taken to be as respectful as possible throughout the change.

Family Relationships and Work

In the workplace, normalcy and routine can be a good base for mental health throughout life changes. Employment is important for a sense of identity as well as financial security. Organisations and employers that can work with their team members as humans who are part of family systems outside of the workplace will benefit from higher staff wellbeing and performance.

It is essential to get help when it is needed, and often it is a manager or team member who may notice signs that someone’s mental health (flourishing cognitively, emotionally, physically and socially) or family relationships need support. Raise observations directly, respectfully, and out of concern. Focus on caring observations of how someone’s behaviour has changed, rather than on who they are as a person. Direct them to the option of professional support available through work (for example, an EAP program) or in the community (see resources below).