Family experiences of parental mental illness in Northern Ireland
: A social phenomenological study

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Parental Mental Illness (PMI) is a global public health issue. While research to date has provided much insight into the needs and experiences of parents with mental illness there continues to be less experiential evidence gathered from other family members, internationally and locally in Northern Ireland (NI). Further to this there has been a gap in the research including whole families, using a relational based theoretical framework. Partly this gap reflects the complexity of investigating multiple perspectives and the lack of a clear guiding theoretical framework for this area. This was addressed with the development of an integrated conceptual framework - ‘The Family Knot’ incorporating epistemological, methodological, and analytical theories guiding the design, development and data analysis. The framework drew strongly on social phenomenology and family systems theory while also being informed by feminist and attachment theory. Twenty-eight semi structured interviews were carried out with members of families affected by PMI, including interviews with ten children and six partners. A thematic analysis of the data resulted in four overarching themes; Transgenerational Impact of Adversity; Living with Instability; Impact of PMI on Parenting Capacity and Support seeking and service use. Significant insights were gained including the impact of ‘the Troubles’ on the parents and their mental health as well as the transgenerational impact on children in the sample. The analysis revealed that families lived with and attempted to manage the instability caused by PMI and that sometimes the strategies used maintained dysfunction. The Family Knot also revealed that reduced parenting capacity resulted in the unmet needs of children, leading to behavioural problems which in turn impacted the wellbeing of the parent. Finally, there was highly valuable insight gained from this sample regarding support seeking and service use, revealing a great deal of ambivalence where families wished for effective and timely support but were deeply distrustful of existing services. This thesis culminated in a discussion about how these findings could be applied to improve services for families including the importance of recognizing the parenting role, not only as a matter of fact but as a source of recovery and increased wellbeing for all family members.
Date of AwardDec 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SponsorsNorthern Ireland Department for the Economy
SupervisorKathryn Higgins (Supervisor), Gavin Davidson (Supervisor) & Anne Grant (Supervisor)


  • Parental mental illness
  • mental health
  • family focused
  • whole family research
  • maternal mental illness
  • paternal mental illness

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