Fostercare and the stigma of mental illness


Lilia Zaharieva
Focus on Adoption magazine

I’ve certainly benefitted from the care of some very supportive foster parents over the years, since my placement in goverment care at the age of 15. My need for care was determined by the presence of serious mental illness in the family. My beautiful and brilliant mother was a professor of linguistics at the University of Victoria, when she experienced the onset of schizophrenia. It certainly doesn’t discriminate. All of the degrees, merits and accomplishments did not matter, in the slow decline of her beautiful mind.

In my very young age, I still knew that something was amiss. My parent was changing, and slipping away from me, before my very eyes. In attempts to shield and protect me, the schizophrenia was never discussed. Far from protecting me, this added to the loneliness and confusion I was facing.

I’ll never forget the first time my mother was hospitalized. I missed her terribly, but was not allowed to ask why. Furthermore, I was too insecure to reach out for support, in fear of judgement and rejection. Trusted with keeping our darkest family secret, I put up a happy facade, and proceeded with life as usual.

I worked incredibly hard at school, convinced that if I had higher grades and was a better child, my mom would cease her sadness. My little brother became my responsibilty, as did much of the household work. I know now that this was my assumption of a “young caregiver” role, defined by the shouldering of burdens greater than those deemed as appropriate by society. It was exhausting, and it wasn’t until years later, that I identified the effects of this parentification at a young age, and was able to fully mourn the loss of a normal childhood.

One third of young caregivers, are placed into this role, because of mental illness. Many of them, whether openly or not, have likely ended up in foster care. I urge you, as guardians of these young people, to have patience, to act with discretion, and to always read between the lines. The effects of this sort of upbringing can wreak havoc on a young person’s life, but our societal neglect of this issue leaves many alone and unwilling to come forward.

Children of mentally ill parents face the highest risk of any other group for mental illness themselves, but our reactive system fails to meet their needs. Is it any wonder that research has named them “the invisible dimension of mental health?”

Psychoeducation, support from strong adult figures, and the space to make mistakes, be a kid, and just “be” are a few of the ways that you can acknowledge these youth in your care.

The invisibility of mental illness contributes to the misunderstanding and stigma perpetuated in our culture. By modeling compassion and meeting them exactly where they are, you have an opportunity to empower these young people.

The expected ups and downs of my mom’s illness made it so that some days I loved her, while other days I was angry and unwilling to nurture the relationship. Both of these reactions are entirely normal, and it is important that young people feel supported in drawing their own boundaries. I would have wished for my own foster parents to see this, and to withhold judgement towards my biological parent regardless of the current status of her health.

Studies show that as awareness of mental illness increases, the negative stigma rises with it. Change will start with people like you.

I am pleased to report that my mother is doing remarkably well, that we have rebuilt a supportive and fulfilling relationship, and that I have had the opportunity, thanks in part to the BCFFPA and MCFD to turn my experience into a support and education group for youth aged 13–19 titled InsideOUT. It is a difficult task, one not possible without the acknowledgment of you, the ones trusted with raising our most vulnerable population.

I am hopeful for a better vision of mental health in BC, and I believe that change can only begin when we examine our attitudes and grow from the inside out. For more information on InsideOUT, go to


Reprinted with permission of the BC Federation of Foster Parent Associations.