When Your Parent Has Mental Illness: Healing From Childhood Trauma

In Middle Eastern, Arab, and African households, the predominant belief is that family and blood ties mean unconditional respect, devotion, and loyalty – even if these family members have been your primary cause of trauma.

Growing up in a family of five, I had a pretty stable childhood. My Dad was the big fun-loving guy who created so much entertainment every time he was around, even though he wasn’t around often. When I was growing up, I slowly started to see my Dad in a different light as I noticed patterns of someone who was suffering inside their own head. One day, his pleasant persona came crashing down upon his return from abroad.

Our family was surprised when my Dad decided to return to Sudan unannounced. Wondering what had happened, we found ourselves in the same room, looking at my Dad who felt like a complete stranger. He had lost weight and his physique completely changed. We were in total shock and concern as he started telling us about alleged spies that were after him, that there were camera implants in the house and a voice recorder on his phone. His face was filled with complete panic and paranoia, as we were all trying to hide our own panic in light of what was going on.

Having very little mental health awareness at the time, I knew then that this needed a family intervention. We needed to educate ourselves first in order to help him so that he could seek help. In Sudan at the time, the information around mental health was limited. People only sought help through a “Sheikh” or religious officials who sometimes beat, abused, and stigmatized those with mental health disorders. The religious leaders would sometimes perform something like exorcism because they believed those with mental health disorders had a demon inside them.

Growing up, I remember children playing in the street would scream and throw rocks at our neighbor, who was clearly mentally unstable at the time. My main worry was for that same stigma to be inflicted upon my Dad. Between the lack of resources, the stories of stigma I’ve seen, the lack of awareness, and the worry I had for him, I found myself trying to figure out how to support him without harming.

The next months would be tough and full of manic and depressive episodes that shook our household to the core, with my mom mainly bearing the burden of all this. My Dad eventually sought help and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The doctors prescribed medication, he now feels better, and we have all become part of his healing journey.

In African and Middle Eastern households, we don’t talk about how a close family member’s mental illness can affect their children and loved ones. It can often lead to severe distress, anxiety, and triggers if it is not dealt with in a healthy way.

The next few years ahead, I noticed myself in extreme hyper-sensitivity mode – every scream, every doorbell, every loud noise around me would manifest the same anxiety I felt from before. I slowly realized it is a trauma response from past events. None of my family members ever spoke about it. The events were swept under a rug, as if nothing happened, as if we all didn’t need to heal both collectively and at our own individual levels, but I guess that’s a cultural thing when it comes to Arab and African households. Why don’t we deal with our struggles? Why don’t we speak about them?

This is my first time sharing my story. My own healing journey took time and it’s still not easy, but I am grateful that I developed knowledge, compassion, understanding and advocacy for those dealing with mental health disorders, and for their families too. I came to the realization that we need a generational breakthrough to end these cycles of stigma and silence, and to support each other heal. I see it happening gradually as time passes and that is indeed my greatest joy.

Rawaa Ahmed

The Author

Rawaa Ahmed is a Sudanese women’s rights advocate who has undertaken various advocacy and educational roles in the areas of children and women's empowerment, gender equity, and mental health awareness. She is also AWRA’s Sudan-based representative.