Are you listening? – Anna Spargo-Ryan

Are you listening?

Are you listening?

What I want to write about is being a parent with a mental illness. Predictably, because I am a writer who is a parent with a mental illness, who often writes about parenting and also mental illness. And predictably, because parents with mental illness are in the news today, because the death of a child at the hand of his parent is so profound, and we all feel it, and we all see it in the faces of the children that we love so much.

Parents kill their children, sometimes. Most often it is through neglect and violence. Some of the time these parents have an underlying illness that is a trigger for this unthinkable horror. Sometimes that underlying illness is a mental one.

Almost every minute of every day, I look at my children and think, Jesus Christ, you wonderful little people, what an extraordinarily lucky person I am to be able to grab you and smoosh my face into you and be loved by you. But for the other couple of minutes of the day, I think about how well I know myself, and how lucky I am to be surrounded by people who understand me and my brain. People who can identify the moments when I’m not lucid and when I’m not on top of it, and who can pull me aside until I am.

A friend of my dad’s had three children, about my kids’ age. His wife was a woman who I’m certain adored her children as much as any of us does. She had a mental illness. One day the husband came home and she had died of monoxide poisoning in the driveway of their home. In the back seat, their children had also died. In her suicide letter, she explained that she couldn’t, in good conscience, leave her children behind in such a terrible world, so she took them with her.

I am the last person you’ll find promoting the media line of mental illness being a) an excuse for behaviour, or b) being to blame for behaviour, but there are illnesses that are not well understood and that are not well treated, and people who are not well supported and who are not well cared for. Some of these people are parents. Some of these people love their children to the point of having their hearts bust right out of their ribs. Mostly. Almost all of the time. Pretty much every minute of the day.


There are people in the community who have mental health issues that none of us could understand. Ones that they themselves don’t understand. There are times when a parent stands on the street and shouts at a child not because the child has done anything wrong, but because the brain has misfired. We walk past. We whisper about people’s ability to care for their children. Sometimes we do more; we call Human Services, or the police, or another witness. We wonder whether the child will be okay.

Usually, the child is okay. Most parents do not have mental illnesses that manifest as violent behaviour.


Obviously I know nothing about the inner workings of Greg Anderson’s brain, or what possessed him to kill his son, and I won’t speculate on whether more could have been done to prevent what is truly a horrific and terrible tragedy.

But you might not know what a parent with a mental illness looks like. You might not know what a parent with a mental illness sounds like. You might not recognise a danger when you see one. And that’s okay, because you’re not a doctor and it’s not up to you. A mental illness isn’t an excuse for behaviour, but sometimes it does dictate behaviour. Some mental illnesses do alter realities and change perceptions and create hallucinations. Not all.

Just go round with your ears and heart open.

  • Sam Ryan

    February 14, 2014 at 3:17 pm Reply

    Nicely put, Anna. Amid all the outrage, judgement of her, diagnosis of him, the person most intimately involved has been so unbelievably considered and heartfelt, we can only take her at her word on this particular incident. Many people seem to be confusing ‘making excuses’ (harmful) with ‘seeking reasons’ (helpful). Obviously this particular discussion is not just about the mental health of one parent, but there is always a reason someone does something so inconceivable, even if it’s basically biological. Just calling it ‘evil’ prevents us from understanding actual human beings and intervening in future incidents to help everyone involved.

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      February 14, 2014 at 3:20 pm Reply

      EXACTLY. Exactly. Thanks Sam.

    • Sam Quigley

      February 14, 2014 at 8:39 pm Reply

      Hmm, while I agree that making excuses may be harmful and seeking reasons may be helpful, I suspect they are only so up to a certain point and even then, only to the small number of people directly affected. I also suspect the dream (well-intentioned though it may be) of being able to ‘intervene in future incidents’ has played no small part in the dramatic increase in the size of the DSM: ‘If only we had a more precise diagnosis of his condition, we would have known he would feel the urge to kill his son on this day and could have adjusted his medication accordingly.’ An admirable goal, but psychiatry has so many inherent limitations that any possibility of it accurately predicting seemingly random behaviour has to be at least hundreds, if not thousands, of years away; more likely, it never will. As such, I think this particular discussion is just about the mental health of one parent because, realistically, that’s all it can be.

      An incredibly awful thing happened, but I’m just not sure there are any lessons to be extracted from it, other than ‘Sometimes incredibly awful things happen.’

      • Anna Spargo-Ryan

        February 14, 2014 at 8:53 pm Reply

        I don’t think a precise diagnosis is necessary or even helpful. I think what I’m going for is a combination of ‘sometimes incredibly awful things happen’ and also ‘keep an eye out for people you know if you can’. And also my usual bleating on of ‘having a mental illness doesn’t make someone a bad person’.

      • Anna Spargo-Ryan

        February 14, 2014 at 8:54 pm Reply

        Actually, I’ve decided that a precise diagnosis is actually unhelpful, because it implies that everyone with this mutual diagnosis should be treated the same way and with the same expectation, and then you’re just tarring a whole lot of people with the same uninformed and unsympathetic brush.

        • Sam Quigley

          February 14, 2014 at 10:01 pm Reply

          Right. The desire to categorise things in order to identify patterns has generally served us well as a species, but it’s a strategy with limits, beyond which it becomes unhelpful at best and dangerous at worst.

      • Sam Ryan

        February 14, 2014 at 9:49 pm Reply

        What I meant about being about more than mental health is that how we talk about, deal with and educate people on domestic violence is also a big intertwined relevant issue.

        But *something* leads people doing things like this, at whatever level. As far as my curious mind is concerned the only answer that leads to no further wondering is ‘it’s God’s work’, which I don’t believe so that leaves ‘something else’. And we’ll probably never know why in this case, but there’s a reason somewhere. I feel like it’s worth considering.

        Maybe when we understand more about the brain the DSM will be *smaller*?? In any case, I (think I) agree that the labels within it are only useful to a point. Diagnosis and treatment in mental health is never an exact science. Part of the better general understanding is probably understanding every human brain is different and even people with the same diagnosis present differently, and respond differently to treatments. The labels aren’t necessarily helpful in general discussion around specific incidents that already get too prescriptive.

        I dunno.

  • Caroline

    February 14, 2014 at 6:08 pm Reply

    I want everyone to read this. So measured and thoughtful Anna.x

  • Brad

    February 14, 2014 at 6:21 pm Reply

    Brilliant piece Anna. As a long term sufferer of depression following a series of traumatic events, and someone who is currently having thoughts which defy logic and rationality, this is a great insight into the workings of mental illness. I adore my kids and if it were not for them I often think that this world is too much to deal with.

    Once again, a brilliant piece of writing.

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      February 14, 2014 at 7:33 pm Reply

      Thanks so much, Brad. I am always available for chats in dark times.

      • Brad

        February 14, 2014 at 7:34 pm Reply

        Thank you. I really appreciate that Anna.

  • Suz

    February 14, 2014 at 6:22 pm Reply

    Anna, so much has been swirling in my brain following this week’s events. It is so good to read pieces of writing like yours that put some clarity to the swirl. Thank you.

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      February 14, 2014 at 7:31 pm Reply

      Thanks so much, Suz :) I didn’t feel very clear when I was writing it, but some of the words were the ones I wanted to say.

  • Maxabella

    February 14, 2014 at 8:51 pm Reply

    A tragedy like this one and absolutely no idea of how someone would even know how to start judging. Where to begin, where to stop, why it even matters. Nothing to say. Nothing. Too busy feeling like the world just threw up. x

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      February 15, 2014 at 6:34 pm Reply

      Judging is the wrong way to tackle the mentally unwell. Not sympathy, necessarily, or sadness or charity, but enough kindness to find the appropriate way forward.

  • Lana

    February 14, 2014 at 10:16 pm Reply

    What a beautiful post – your children are lucky to learn compassion and empathy from a mother like you.

    I wrote about a similar angle today and I think I can sum it up with my last few words “People with mental illness deserve compassion. They deserve care – they deserve diagnosis and treatment. They deserve long term treatment. They don’t deserve stigma, they don’t deserve derision or fear. Just treatment and compassion and long-term help because ultimately nobody deserves to die. Certainly not the children of the mentally ill”.

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      February 15, 2014 at 6:32 pm Reply

      Thank you, my friend. I agree with you, and unfortunately have hidden a little more than usual today, in case my Mental Illness sees me unfit to parent.

      • Lana

        February 15, 2014 at 6:39 pm Reply

        Mental illness doesn’t make you unfit to parent. Remember that

  • Bernadette Morley

    February 14, 2014 at 10:42 pm Reply

    An open heart indeed. x

  • Mrs Fringe

    February 15, 2014 at 9:02 am Reply

    This is a beautiful and thoughtful post, Anna.

  • Vanessa Jones

    February 15, 2014 at 9:53 am Reply

    Great post but my favourite part is the community, engagement and support I’m witnessing through these comments. It takes skill to facilitate and invite that Anna – we done.

  • Sommer Tothill

    February 15, 2014 at 4:40 pm Reply

    Thank you so much for writing this. Being someone who *isn’t* a parent for reasons exactly having to do with my own mental illness, your words resonated.

  • Mike Spargo

    February 16, 2014 at 12:30 am Reply

    Anna, I was attracted to your blog due to the Spargo name. After thoroughly reading your submission and the responses thereto, it dawned on me that some may be spending a lot of time “chasing their tail” rather than being guided by an expert.
    I read nothing about professional advice or prescription/prognosis. I saw only your feelings…..which are interesting and highly positive since they admit a problem and seek solution for that problem. I believe someone who is as intelligent as you apparently are is seeking help/advice/direction from an expert who is capable of directing you to a less troubled life.
    I wish you peace in your life, Anna.

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      February 16, 2014 at 8:09 am Reply

      Hi Mike,

      Thanks for visiting :) Fear not–I have been under the watchful eye of the medical profession for fifteen years now (and have spoken about it on this blog a number of times). The illness I have is manageable but not curable (yet?), so I don’t talk about it, because that’s depressing and therefore cyclical. Anxiety disorders are troubling, so unfortunately that’s something I will have to continue to contend with, however it doesn’t make the things in my life any less exceptional, wonderful and awe-inspiring.

  • JodiGibson (@JFGibsonWriter)

    February 16, 2014 at 8:33 pm Reply

    Such a complex issue Anna, and so beautifully spoken on your behalf through your eyes and experiences with the reality of a mental illness. Coming from a background of a sibling with a severe mental illness who has done many violent and horrible things to unspeakable to mention here I always wonder if there are some people that cannot be helped, no matter how much we try. We are not God, and if there is one, it seems that even he cannot help those who need help and protect the others. I don’t think mental illness will ever be truly understood, at least not in our generation. The past generations had different ways of dealing with things and I wonder in extreme cases if these ‘saved’ people. Controversial but from what I have seen, I wonder. I think there needs to be a distinction between people with mental illness and extreme cases of mental illness as right now they are all lumped into one.

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      February 18, 2014 at 6:46 pm Reply

      Thanks Jodi. I do think there is something in what you’re saying, and I’ve written about that on my blog before (here). I’m sure the extreme ways of the past DID save people, in the sense that they didn’t die, but I honestly (controversially?) don’t think that’s always the best thing for an individual.

  • Benison O'Reilly

    February 16, 2014 at 8:33 pm Reply

    Thank you for writing this. x

  • Adeline Teoh

    February 16, 2014 at 9:08 pm Reply

    Not an excuse but a cause. In the case you outline, the mother’s act of love was to take her children with her. When someone’s emotions is expressed in behaviour that differs from what’s ‘expected’, it can be hard to comprehend. Perhaps the check and balances for the behaviour of mentally ill people may need to be more stringent, but those checks and balances also exist for the non-mentally ill.

  • ali

    February 17, 2014 at 5:17 pm Reply

    Perhaps if more ears and hearts were open, then minds would open too…

    I’m not saying that would prevent these things from happening, but maybe, just maybe, just one person would feel like they could say one thing to one friend, one professional, one family member and one life could be saved.


    Open minds. Always open.

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