At age eight, Rose Cox left childhood behind and became a parent.
The seeds of the family crisis that saw her take on this role were sown when her mother contracted a rare neurological condition that saw her in and out of hospital over a year and which left her permanently disabled. “She was left an incomplete paraplegic, paralysed from the neck down,” Cox, now 19, says.
Her father did his best to cope. But it was hard - suddenly, he was the sole carer for two little girls (Cox’s younger sister was just three at the time), juggling work demands and an ill spouse.
The demands proved too much in the end, says Cox – particularly after he was made redundant.
It was the start of a slow spiral into depression, and eventually, addiction issues. “He had a mental health breakdown,” she says. “He basically lost the plot. He wouldn't shower or wash or shave. He stopped driving. He wouldn't cook, he wouldn't clean so I was doing all these things at age eight. I was just trying to keep the family together.”
“Looking back, I often describe his behaviour like living with a ghost. It was really challenging because we needed him to be there but because of the mental illness, he became a different person.”
Cox effectively became a carer not just for her father but also to her little sister. “It was pretty difficult for her because she wasn't old enough to remember dad before [his mental illness]. And there’s mum in a wheelchair. Day-to-day life was turned upside down.”
Luckily, help came when family friends realised how ill her father was and told her mother about a program dedicated to helping children living with parents with a mental illness.
Founded in 2002, the Kookaburra Kids supports children aged 8-18 years living in such households.
Supported by Medibank through its Mental Health and Wellbeing fund, it rose from the work of a local police officer who witnessed first-hand the impact of mental illness on families, and a Miranda woman, Dianne Madden, whose mother had bipolar disorder and who also identified the lack of support for children like her with a mentally ill parent.
Approximately one in five Australian children live in families where at least one parent experiences a mental illness, with depression and anxiety being the most common.
It’s a significant demographic – but children like her are often the forgotten faces of the mental health debate in Australia, says Cox.
While there are various resources such as such as The Children of Parents with a Mental Illness (COPMI) national initiative, the area is under-resourced.Little surprise that there was an immediate demand when the Kookaburra Kids launched, says general manager Danielle McGloin. The first camp was held with 16 kids. Now there are more than 2,000 kids registered with the program.
The chief aim of the program is to provide early intervention, says chief executive Chris Giles. Investment in mental health is crucial and pays dividends.
“Evidence shows us that children living in these households have a higher risk of developing mental illness themselves.”
Kookaburra Kids camps are held over a weekend with numbers capped at between 30 - 35 kids. “Typically, children are picked up by bus at the end of the school week on Friday and stay until 1pm Sunday,” says McGloin.
Children can be referred to the program by family, school counsellors, psychologists and other carers. The Kids Helpline can also help with referrals and support.
The camps draw children from all classes and cultural backgrounds, says Giles. “Mental health is non-discriminatory.” Their home environments are similarly diverse. “It can range from 'mum does not get out of bed because of depression or is bipolar', to PTSD issues in defence families.”
Designed to increase resiliency, reduce isolation and increase a child’s support network, the program offers a range of activities - canoeing, archery, giant swing, go carts, craft, laser tag and so on – along with a chat group run each day which allows children to share their stories, build trust and friendships, and get information on resources and coping strategies.
One of the biggest issues that these children face is guilt, says McGloin. “They hold the belief that they are somehow responsible.”
Cox concurs. She recounts the relief the camp gave her little sister, now 15, when she first attended age nine. “She, like me, realised that it was not her fault that her dad was like this. Because that's what a lot of young kids think - ‘oh my god, this is my fault, this raging rampage of anger, it’s my fault that my dad is lying in bed for days on end’.”
For Cox, it proved a pivotal moment. She left feeling stronger, more resilient, less alone, and armed with coping strategies.
She would need that strength. Her father’s depression and addiction issues escalated; in her first year of high school, he finally left the family. “He never really got better.”
But the rest of the family did. Cox praises the program’s holistic approach, which aims to support the entire family from providing respite to parents, to ensuring there is long-term support for children (Cox herself has attended camp every year until she turned 18 last year).
Now in the second year of university, she is passionate about becoming an advocate for children like herself.
“My goal is to break down the barriers of shame and stigma for kids. Since age ten, I've decided there are two ways to go with my life. I could take the fork in the road where I could turn into my dad or I could be someone who helped young people.
“Obviously, I’ve taken the second road.”
Medibank is proud to support the work of Kookaburra Kids through its Medibank Mental Health & Wellbeing Fund. The Australian Kookaburra Kids Foundation supports kids living in families affected by mental illness. The program provides recreational, educational camps and other activities, giving kids a break in a fun, positive and safe environment. Click here to find more about the Medibank and Kookaburra Kids partnership.
Mood and Food
Professor Felice Jacka (Deakin University) explains the link between food and mood in the Better Minds episode of Dr Michael Mosley's Reset, which you can stream now on SBS On Demand. This program was created in partnership with Medibank, editorially produced independently by SBS.