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Updated 10:00 AM April 11, 2005




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Mothers with mental illnesses benefit from family support

Mothers with mental illnesses who live with their children and extended family fare significantly better than mothers who live only with their children or with their kids and a spouse/partner, a newly published U-M study indicates.

In addition, African American mothers living with extended families have better daily functioning and less parenting stress in similar living environments than whites, who are more negative, stressed and conflicted, says lead author Carol Mowbray, a professor in the School of Social Work.

Living with relatives, the researchers say, provides increased support that may promote mothers' well-being. Mothers who receive more emotional support have been found to be more nurturing parents.

"This is important information for service providers and future researchers," says 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."

Mowbray, Hollingsworth, Daphna Oyserman, professor of psychology and social work, and Sara Goodkind, a graduate student instructor in sociology, conducted the study, which appeared in the March issue of Social Work Research.

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 ages 18 to 55, caring for at least one child aged 4 to 16, and suffering 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.

The study showed that on average African-American mothers had more children 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, and more financial worries.

"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," says Mowbray, who also serves as director of the 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."

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