Does bad parenting cause mental illness?

Over on our Facebook page, a reader posted:

Supporters of families should protest SAMHSA’s distribution of its new “Family Therapy Can Help” booklet. It’s full of statements that imply that faulty family dynamics are the underlying problem in the development and persistence of mental illnesses. At the same time, SAMHSA does nothing to educate the public or clinicians or people with severe illnesses on what is known about psychotic disorders from a science based perspective. Here’s a link to this free document:

Around the same time, a Shrink Rap reader wrote in to us saying:

I get tired of the stories about the noble families caring for their wayward child. It's that way sometimes, but a lot of times, it's NOT that way!

What I don’t understand is this: I have NEVER EVER read an article anywhere that talked about families and an adult child with serious mental illness that did anything but praise the family of origin and their noble quests to save their unfortunate children. (Well, on Dr. Allen’s site, which is like the only exception).
I have bipolar and came from an incest family. Just about every psychiatrist I have ever seen, and every single community mental health worker (social services) has said that so many of their patients come from abusive families. In fact, the community workers who only see people with serious and persistent mental illness say that nearly ALL their clients have extremely abusive families.
So what is going on here that there is NEVER EVER a mention that perhaps some of these sacrificing, noble family members may have been the catalyst for the mental illness and are continuing to abuse the person by committing them and placing all the blame of the messed up family at the feet of the one who has a label? And bipolar or schizophrenia labels are handy for parents or other abusers to escape culpability.
I understand that NAMI is all about moms not wanting to be blamed for their kids’ mental illnesses, which probably did happen unfairly quite a bit. But come on! Often parents are the major cause, by abusing or failing to protect their kids (in my sexual abuse support group, all the ladies were blamed and ostracized by their moms and others when they told about what happened. What I learned from that is that kids who are abused and their mom has their back don’t end up so messed up that they need to be in a support group)
So it always ticks me off when I read blogs written by mental health providers, or newspaper articles, or see something on TV showing these wonderful, loving parents, and come on, statistically, some of those families are probably very abusive and the motives for promoting involuntary commitment are very dark indeed, a legal way to continue abusing an adult who has tried to escape.
And keep in mind that many people who have been in a mental hospital found it to be further abuse.
Or did all those mental health workers lie to me about mental patients and their toxic families?

Clinically, I’ve seen all combinations. I’ve seen people with really dysfunctional families and very sad histories that have included horrible losses and abuse, who have turned into very functional, loving, and productive adults. I’ve seen people who have been raised by wonderful parents have serious mental illnesses, and I’ve seen people with awful family lives who have been come seriously mentally ill. It’s often hard to sort out the role of genes versus environment, because often the dysfunctional and abusive parents also suffered from mental illness. People differ with their individual sensitivities to what has been sad and done to them – some feel injured by parents who seem to have good intentions but sometimes say the wrong things, and others have no problem dismissing what sounds to be flagrant abuse. Certainly, objectively traumatic events color who people become and how they react to the world. But does childhood trauma cause psychotic disorders?

What do our readers think?

Imo it doesn’t help but additional factors are needed to trigger severe mental illness.

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I have had mental illness for 16 years since I was 13, but my parents were very good, they didn’t abuse me. But I still got sick. One thing that I can mention though is my mom was excessively religious and the talk of exorcism from evil spirits rubbed off on me. I became a very fearful child.

My parent’s were also very good to me and on my side. Our family was stable and very undramatic… My parents didn’t fight, yell or even cuss. They are very open minded and had good jobs… But I just kept getting sicker and sicker.

I had an abusive (no sexual) father. He was paranoid and a psychopath. I got beaten a lot. Once he tried to crush my scull with his hands. He nearly strangled my baby brother. Kicked me in the stomach and teased me. Made promises he never kept. I had to chose from several punishments. I protected my younger sister, I took the blame for everything she did.

I started hearing voices when I was 15. I also got paranoid and thought my father would kill me if I sleep.

Luckily I moved away from him when I was 16. But got really depressed and started drinking heavily.

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I am so sorry that you had to go through such torture, I wish you a peaceful and brighter future


I realized after 5 years of depression that I chose what I want my life to be. I’m in control and the choises I make will determine my future. I have tried to make my life harmonic and stress free. I have chosen friends carefully. I only surround myself with positive energy. Also I am not treating my children in the same way I was treated. They do not have contact with grandpa. I still don’t trust him.


Both my parents are very different people. My dad had a massive book shelf with True Crime books, books about serial killers. When there are news reports of basement sex slaves he would say " that lucky guy".

My mother is a violent woman. She dresses like the grandmother in the flowers in the attic movie. Wears nothing but black clothes, black hair, black shoes. As a kid getting off the school bus she would come out of the house with a rolling pin saying “get in your room now”.

Yes I do believe parenting styles can cause mental illness.

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I think how resilient someone is has a lot to do with it. No one is going to come out of life unscathed. How sensitive you are to injury defines you as well.
Prolonged trauma (Perceived, or otherwise) is what I think breaks people.

My parents were very supportive, loving parents and still are. They’ve stood by be through the bad times and have supported me in all they could. My schizophrenia was triggered by bullying mainly but I do believe people have this illness in their genes.

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its very freudian that mode of thinking i think it is just one of the factor that contribute to the illness developing there are many more traumatic birth, few friends, head trauma drug and alcohol abuse especially cannabis and genetics this is what they think at the moment anyway i think personally that if a person recieve moretrauma than they can cope with it mioght be the brains response.

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My father was a vicious man as well. It definitely contributed hugely to me developing mental illness. However I moved home about 2 years ago. I was quiet messed up at the time I was convinced that I was an alien ambassador and frankly I needed my parents/someone badly.

My father is still over bearing. He has threatened to kick me out of the house a number of times. Afterwards he says that he dosnt mean it. Most of the problems in my life stem from my parents and what they did to me as a kid. Ill never forget it.

We went to family therapy. It sort of helped. It cleared the air a bit.

The problem is that I dont have friends really. At least not many. I need my parents - even thought they are not the best. There is no one else I can turn too.

**I think everything has to be “just right” for sz.
There has to be a predisposition, family atmosphere, drugs, mother sick in the last few months of pregnancy, maybe a blow to the head from an accident…
My son had all of these triggers present. Yes, abuse also. Ugh-thats the first time I have ever said that out loud. Im afraid the father was abusive. Yeah, he was.
Sorry-off the point. I think there has to be a big genetic component. Drugs are hateful and can really trigger that gene. Just my opinion. If we knew the cause-we could cure it…thanks


After my breakup 2 years ago, I lost several friends. They were originally friends of my partner, so they stayed by his side after the breakup.

Since I had only like 2 friends, I decided to join I just put in my profile that I was looking for friends–not a relationship.

It took a few months, but I made 3 friends from that site. And here we are, over a year later, and we’re still close friends.

I’ve also met a few friends just by walking around the neighborhood and going to the corner market.

I can honestly say that you HAVE to put yourself out there, and be proactive, to make friends. Sure, it’s tough putting yourself out there, but the rewards are worth it!




One question. If child abuse causes schizophrenia why do we rarely see more than one person in a family become schizophrenic? Yes, I know that psychopathic parents often pick on only one child. But still, in families with two or three kids who are all abused it SEEMS that it is rare to see two or three kids in families like that become schizophrenic. And if you want to say that bad parenting causes schizophrenia then I think that the statistics that shows only 2 or 3% of the population is schizophrenic.There are a LOT of bad parents out there. My family could be called dysfunctional in some ways. My two sisters came out fine. not me. And to tell you the truth my family actually favored me.My dad said him and my mom walked on eggshells around me. So in the last last part of your post, it still, seems environment and genes play roles. It’s not black and white that bad parenting causes all or most of schizophrenia as thought in the fifties.


@firemonkey, I see where you are coming from and I know that you have a far superior wealth of knowledge than I do. But my opinion was asked and I never pass on an opportunity like that.
I basically agree with you and everyone on here at the same time in a weird way. I DO think that childhood trauma and abuse can trigger mental illness. But I think that the illness it triggers depends on the person’s genetics. Person with chromosome A might have the genes for sz and the trauma could cause them to kick in. Person B has a different chromosome with bipolar in it which might have never come out either but the trauma teases it out. Person C might end up with depression. Person D might beat them all to the post and not develop anything chronic. Roll of the dice really. But with a dice with that many sides it is hard to win.


In terms of parenting skills i would rate my parents a 4-5/10 but can’t say they were very abusive- certainly not physically or sexually. I think that bullying was a contributing factor to developing full blown mental illness. However i think it might have triggered an already latent process. Did i develop the ingredients for SMI due to bullying, or was the bullying due to my peers picking up on things that were latent markers for SMI and the bullying was the final piece in the jigsaw?

I was certainly different from my peers at a young age- introverted,shy, poor social interaction skills, physically and socially awkward, one friend between 8-13 and none between 13-18.

i am one of 3 children i am the middle child but my sisters both still have major issues i am the more sensitive of the three resilience is a major factor something your born with however we were all abused as kids my older sister is a compulsive liar and my younger sister has anxiety depression and GAD and an eating disorder the dsimple fact is we dont know but abuse during childhood certainley doesnt help.

I think she kind of misses the point a bit. First of all, some parents are abusive because they have the same mental illness as their child, but untreated. I have to say that the most abusive parent in my circle of acquaintances actually has bipolar herself. Secondly, when people have psychosis, some of their memories are delusions. Thirdly, lots of people come out of abusive families WITHOUT a psychotic disorder. Fourthly, blaming others, a sense of powerlessness is a symptom. Fifthly, yes, some people’s psychosis MAY be triggered by abuse from their family.

This to me proves you need additional factors combined with the abuse/trauma.

Yes, I believe there’s a genetic element for many people. The latest research about there being 8 types of sz may help to tease out causation, hopefully.

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