As a globally respected expert on mental health nursing, Dr Kim Foster has spent decades researching the causes and impacts of mental illnesses. She tells Pamela how she spent much of her childhood in a care home, as a result of her mother’s severe mental illness.
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If you are affected by anything you hear in this podcast, there are people you can talk to for support. You can contact your GP, www.samaritans.org or www.childline.org.uk. If you are a young person, you could also talk to a teacher or other trusted adult.
Dr Pamela Jenkins: This is My Family, Mental Illness... and Me.
My name is Pamela Jenkins and I’m a researcher at the Mental Health Foundation. My mum, Irene, lived with a mental illness. There were voices only she could hear and she could quickly switch from feeling very high to very low. No one ever talked about it with me when I was young, even though I knew my mum was often unwell. When I was in my 20s, that’s when a psychiatrist told me that my mum had schizoaffective disorder. Sadly, I lost her quite recently to Covid-19 but even though she’s gone, her mental health will always be a huge part of my life.
In each of these podcasts, I’ll speak to someone else whose parent has or had a mental illness. In the UK, there are at least three million children of parents with mental illness. If you’re one, it’s really important that you know you’re not alone.
My Family, Mental Illness... and Me is a podcast series from the charity Our Time with support from the Mental Health Foundation. Our Time champions and supports children of parents with mental illness and their families. We’ve put links to more information in the show notes.
Our chat this time takes us all the way down under to Australia. Our guest has a global profile as an award-winning mental health nurse, academic and researcher. What’s less well-known, however, is that her interest in mental health is at least partly rooted in her own upbringing.
Dr Kim Foster: I’m Kim Foster. I’m a professor of mental health nursing in Melbourne, Australia and I lead a mental health nursing research unit. I’m also the child of two parents with mental illness.
Dr Pamela Jenkins: Hi, Kim. Thank you so much for being here today. It’s really, really lovely to meet you. We’re here to share stories about parental mental illness and you had two parents who had a mental illness. Why don’t you just start by telling me a wee bit more about that and what you first remember about it?
Dr Kim Foster: Yes, well it’s a big story mine but basically, my mother had a psychotic mental illness, paranoid schizophrenia. I’m the eldest of six children and what appears to have happened, because she didn’t get treated for a long time for her illness, was that after each of her pregnancies, she appeared to develop a post-natal psychosis. Of course, way back when I was born [laughter], which was a little while ago, it really wasn’t treated. Although she was hospitalised, I don’t think there was ever any real diagnosis and treatment for many, many years. Unfortunately, because she was unwell often after each pregnancy, my family life was very disjointed I guess and really by the time my youngest sibling was born, the family had actually split up. My youngest two siblings were fostered out to distant family and my other siblings and I were put into children’s homes.
Dr Pamela Jenkins: Gosh.
Dr Kim Foster: So my story is as much about growing up in children’s homes, being detached from my family and having our family all split up, basically, as it is about my mother’s mental illness.
Dr Pamela Jenkins: Oh goodness.
Dr Kim Foster: Later on in life, my father also was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia when I was quite a bit older. So it is an unusual story, I guess, to have both parents who ended up being psychotic and treated and medicated for their illness.
Dr Pamela Jenkins: Oh my goodness. It’s so great to talk to you because that is so often the case that children don’t stay in the family home as a result of the parental mental illness and that’s something that we need to remember that so often, children do go into care. What is one of your first memories of your mother’s mental illness would you say?
Dr Kim Foster: She was quite delusional. Obviously, I didn’t realise that at the time. They were very religious delusions and she used to quote the Bible to us for hours on end. She thought that cartoons in the newspaper had been written about our family and so she would read them, show them to us and say how they were about us. She was suicidal at times and I found her after one of her suicide attempts. I was quite young really and so those memories, I think, stuck with me in particular because I was older than the other children. I was probably about five or six when those sorts of things happened. So they’re the sorts of things I remember about her in childhood and also just our family life being very fractured. My father found it very difficult, I think, to cope and there was quite a lot of conflict in the family and those sorts of things. She certainly had some amazing delusions when I think back now and we would have to sit for hours and listen to them. We’d come out at the end of it and my sister and I would look at each other and say, ‘Do you think that was real?’ So we’d sort of question the delusion but yet part of us also kind of believed them because we were very young. It was about the Bible and how our family was in the Bible and all those sorts of things. My mother also had an issue with my siblings and so when they were born, particularly my brothers, she seemed to have a particular issue with the boys. She thought there were problems with them and that they were mentally delayed or that they had illnesses. She thought my youngest sister was the ‘devil’s spawn,’ as she called her, because of her illness. In one sense, as adults, we can laugh a little bit about those things as we have... not at her but the humour of it.
Dr Pamela Jenkins: Yeah, absolutely. I understand that completely, yeah.
Dr Kim Foster: It also, of course, left quite a mark on my siblings, I guess. So it was sort of hurtful as well as humorous, in a sense.
Dr Pamela Jenkins: Goodness. That must have been just so confusing for a young child. You say you didn’t know what to believe and that leads me to wonder how it was explained to you by other grown-ups at the time. Did anybody talk to you about it?
Dr Pamela Jenkins: Well, not really explained to us. I know that she went to hospital a couple of times when she made suicide attempts and those were general hospitals and not mental health hospitals. She did end up going to one psychiatric hospital but, again, I really don’t know that they really got a grip on what was happening with her until many years later. Because our family was split and our parents divorced, we were in the children’s homes and we spent all the rest of our childhood in those homes and she ended up, over time, deteriorating really. She didn’t remarry. She worked on and off for a while but became progressively more unwell and never got treated really until many years later. She ended up being scheduled, as we would call it here in Australia, or sectioned where she was forced to go to hospital. Although that was not a nice experience for her, I think, and she didn’t want to, it was really the start of her getting treatment, rehabilitation and housing because she was homeless for many years.
Dr Pamela Jenkins: Gosh.
Dr Kim Foster: She rode the train systems and when we had grown up, she was homeless and on the trains and refused to get help. This is a very long story and it went over many, many years but eventually, she did get treated, she did get housing and she did forge a life for herself and had some quality of life which was great.
Dr Pamela Jenkins: Did you maintain a relationship with her after you went into care? How old were you when you went into care?
Dr Kim Foster: We were in three different children’s homes and I don’t remember the first one because I was very, very young and only a few years old. I looked after family members because when she first became unwell was when she had me. I was about three months old and the story goes in the family that she literally left one day and went interstate. The neighbour heard me crying in the cot and she didn’t come home for many months. My father’s family looked after me when I was a baby until she came back. I then went into a baby’s home for a little while at one point and then from about the age of eight, my sister and I went into a children’s home. A few years later, we were moved into another children’s home and we stayed there until I finished high school, basically. Our grandmother, our mother’s mother, really took on some of that mother role and she would visit with my mother and so we did see her on and off during childhood for a weekend or a night but we never lived at home again. That contact, as we got older... she was quite rejecting of us, I guess, and I think that was part of her illness. She kept us at arm’s length a lot of the time and so we ended up not really having a close relationship ever after.
Dr Pamela Jenkins: Did you understand, do you think, what was happening and why?
Dr Kim Foster: No, certainly not as a child. I mean I knew something was not right [laughter]. I think I was quite frightened of her sometimes when she was unwell. It was really only when she was scheduled, as we call it here in Australia, and we had a family meeting but I was already nursing by that point. We were all adults by then and there was psycho-education really with the social worker doing a bit of family work which was good but very late, of course [laughter].
Dr Pamela Jenkins: Gosh, you speak about it with such strength. It’s absolutely incredible. Where was your father at this point?
Dr Kim Foster: He basically left. They were both very young when they got married and I think it was very hard for my father. It was a really difficult situation and, of course, at that point, there weren’t the community services and family support services that there might be nowadays or the awareness. So he left and took off and went interstate and overseas and we had very little to do with him for many, many years. Later on, I think he acknowledged that he’d left us, basically, but I think that was all he could do at the time. He couldn’t cope with it all at the time.
Dr Pamela Jenkins: You say he also had schizophrenia that developed later on. What age was he and what age were you?
Dr Kim Foster: Well, yes, that was the thing. It was a surprise, I guess, for all of us but I was in my later 20s at the time. I went into nursing after I left school because I needed somewhere to live, I needed money and a career. I could live in the nurses’ home and it offered me a career path and that was really important when I look back. I went into general nursing and then I went into mental health nursing and part of that, of course, was probably to try and understand what had happened. So I was nursing, actually, and working in a psychiatric hospital and I was pregnant with my son. My father became very unwell and he came to our place and I thought, ‘You need help.’ He was psychotic. He was paranoid. He thought people were trying to gas him. He’d sort of closed up his flat with towels everywhere so the gas couldn’t get in and he actually said to me, ‘I want you to take me to the hospital.’ He thought that people were after him and after us and he wanted to protect us and said, ‘Take me.’ He voluntarily went to hospital and he was there for a while. He got treatment and he continued having medication after that. He was very young when I was born and he was then about 50 which is quite old, I guess, for a first onset of psychosis. I actually knew the psychiatrist who admitted him and he said to me, ‘Look, it is a bit unusual. It’s not completely unknown that someone will develop a late-onset psychosis but it is unusual.’ I think, for him, it was precipitated by drug use and I actually thought it might have been drug-induced at the time but it seems that eventually he was just diagnosed with schizophrenia.
Dr Pamela Jenkins: Gosh, I can’t even imagine how that must have felt for you and working in the field as well. Emotionally, do you find it difficult working in the field or do you find a comfort in it?
Dr Kim Foster: Yeah, that’s an interesting question. I think, for me, on the one hand, I know too much [laughter]. I was a mental health professional and so, intellectually, I understood what was going on but on the other side of that are all the emotions and the natural responses you have when your parents are unwell. When he became unwell, I just thought, ‘Oh, I can’t believe this!’ [Laughter] It was my other parent but it is what it is, right? Yeah, I spent a lot of my life compartmentalising my childhood. I think I was quite detached from it for a while there and it was only really with counselling and really trying to process some of the impacts of it that I can now speak about it and feel upset but not be so detached and intellectualising of it as I did in the past. A lot of people do this and often detach themselves and intellectualise or be able to talk about a very traumatic past, and it was quite traumatic, in a very detached way. People used to say, ‘Oh, it doesn’t seem to have affected you,’ but, of course, it had. That’s just how I was coping.
Dr Pamela Jenkins: When you were a child, did you have any effects of it in terms of your mental health when you were younger or growing up?
Dr Kim Foster: Yes, I think probably and by nature, I’m a pretty sensitive and probably anxious personality [laughter] and an introvert. I think one of the ways I coped was I got into reading. I read a lot when I was a child in primary school and I think that was a way of disassociating really. I became quite famous in primary school because I won the school library prize because I’d read nearly every book in the library [laughter].
Dr Pamela Jenkins: Oh wow! [Laughter]
Dr Kim Foster: I got comfort in reading because I could put myself into other situations. I used to read The Famous Five by Enid Blyton because I loved the books as they used to talk about what I saw as a normal family with all those kids going off on picnics, etcetera. But I think I was quite lonely as a child and probably I do think, looking back in primary school, I was a bit depressed. High school was a bit different because I got a group of friends at high school and I got involved in a lot of activities. I used to go to their homes and their families would include me in things and so I think things were a bit better when I was in high school.
Dr Pamela Jenkins: How did that make you feel when you were in other families’ homes?
Dr Kim Foster: Well, although I was grateful for the sympathy, I guess, I also really hated being pitied and I always felt sad and a little bit... I don’t know about envious but I’d go into homes and I’d think, ‘Wow! This is how families are.’ [Laughter] But I had some really good friends and they didn’t do a lot of pitying of me but there was always that element there with a lot of people and they felt sorry for you. I always had a bit of an issue with that because I didn’t like being different and feeling lesser than. We were stigmatised at school and we were known as the ‘home kids’ and they said, ‘Don’t your parents want you?’ and those sorts of things that kids say. So I guess [laughter] I got a bit of a chip on my shoulder about not being as good as other people.
Dr Pamela Jenkins: Well, that doesn’t come across at all. You don’t seem at all like you have a chip on your shoulder.
Dr Kim Foster: No, maybe not now but I think at the time and my siblings have said the same thing. We all just felt that we were like a second-class of kid because of our situation.
Dr Pamela Jenkins: When you were older or you were a teen and you said you started to develop those friendships and be in those family homes, did you talk about it with these friends or any of their family members about your parents’ mental health?
Dr Kim Foster: A little bit. I mean this was a very small group of about three girlfriends who were very sensible and knew enough about my circumstance but it wasn’t something that we talked about a lot. We just kind of got on with normal life. I don’t really remember even their parents talking about it with me a lot. They obviously knew and they were generous with me and included me in things but it was never really talked about.
Dr Pamela Jenkins: Would you have liked to talk about it more do you think? Would that have helped, given that you were saying about feeling lesser than and not wanting to be pitied?
Dr Kim Foster: Absolutely, and I think now with a lot of the programmes and support for kids, I think it’s really important that even if they don’t raise it, other people raise it in a way and say, ‘This happens to a lot of families. How you’re feeling is okay and natural. Is there anything we can help with? What do you want to know?’ Those sorts of things I think would have been very helpful for me, yeah.
Dr Pamela Jenkins: I’m interested to know, as you were growing up, did you worry about your mum? Was she on your mind a lot when you were in care?
Dr Kim Foster: Yeah, we did. Again, because of her illness, she was quite unreliable. We’d plan for her to come and take us out from the home for a day or something and she wouldn’t turn up and both me and my sister, who was with me, found that really hard. At the time, we knew she at least had some housing and she had my grandmother’s support, so we knew things were okay but we saw the deterioration over the years. She then became homeless and I think, for all of us, that was quite difficult because sometimes I would see her on the trains. You’re a bit torn between thinking, ‘Oh dear!’ and the other side of me feeling embarrassed which is a hard thing to say [laughter] but there was a shame and embarrassment growing up and even as adults, it was still quite stigmatised.
Dr Pamela Jenkins: It is a hard thing to say but it’s a really honest thing to say and I think it’s a really important thing for people to hear because it’s a completely natural thing. We so often think of stigma as experienced stigma when it comes to mental illness; the parent experiencing stigma or the child experiencing associated stigma. Actually, the fact is that the children themselves are embarrassed which almost translates into a kind of behavioural stigma on their part. That was certainly the case for me by trying to keep everything hidden, or keeping people away, or changing my mum’s behaviour when we were in public because I was stigmatising a little bit as well because I was embarrassed. I think it’s perfectly honest to acknowledge that and it has to be acknowledged. I think that’s really wonderful that you’re being open about that.
Dr Kim Foster: Yeah, I think it’s important because I’ve had a long journey but I’ve had the great good fortune of getting education around it, even when I was an adult because of nursing. I did my PhD on the experiences of adult children of parents with mental illness and so I’ve been able to develop an understanding that’s helped me to process my feelings around it in a way that is different, I guess, than my siblings who didn’t have that experience.
Dr Pamela Jenkins: That’s one of the aims of this podcast. The hope is that it will help other people in similar situations to develop an understanding and be able to relate in a way, like people who haven’t done PhDs or Masters and people who maybe feel alone with it. Maybe through listening and hearing your experience, they will be able to start to begin to develop their own sense of what’s happened in their own experience. Sorry, I asked you before about whether or not you worried about your mum and I think the reason I find it interesting, particularly with your experience having gone into care, is there is a big question around at what point a child becomes a carer. Often, with children of parents with mental illness, they themselves become the carers if they stay at home. I didn’t stay at home with my mum after my father passed away and I lived with family. My dad, before he died, my mum and other family didn’t want me to become a carer. However, I worried about my mum all the time and so, in essence, you don’t stop becoming a carer just because you’re taken out of the situation.
Dr Kim Foster: No, that’s right and I wouldn’t have thought of myself as a child carer at the time but because I was the eldest, there was a lot of responsibility put on me (which was of the time I guess). Both my mother and my grandmother actually sat there and said, ‘You’re the eldest and you need to look after the others.’ So I was quite serious and responsible and I think have felt responsible for my siblings and also was quite a well-behaved child, I suppose, because I felt like I couldn’t not be [laughter] as I’d had this responsibility placed on me. Even my father wrote a letter to me when I think I might have been about 12 at the time and he said, ‘I’ve got to go away and I want you to look after your brothers and sisters.’ At the time, I think he thought he was doing the right thing but actually, that was a very difficult thing to get a letter from a father who was saying, ‘I’ve got to look after myself and I’ve got to leave but you need to look after everybody else.’ [Laughter] Of course, none of this was intended but it did place an awful burden on me.
Dr Pamela Jenkins: Absolutely.
Dr Kim Foster: I was parentified, basically, by that process I guess and by my personality which was always very responsible, conscientious and all the rest of it [laughter] but it meant that I grew up far too quickly and then really had to spend a lot of my adulthood trying to repair some of that.
Dr Pamela Jenkins: What did that look like in your adulthood? How did that reverberate then?
Dr Kim Foster: I think I just needed to learn to lighten up, have fun, enjoy myself and not always feel so terribly responsible for everybody and everything else because over time, that did become a problem for me. It means that you neglect yourself. I think one of the things for children whose parents have a mental illness is you’ve got to look after yourself and self-care is so important and that’s emotional self-care; being allowed to be a kid and being allowed to be angry, naughty and all those things. I had to try and understand and repair some of that and allow myself to be a fuller person, if that makes sense.
Dr Pamela Jenkins: Yeah, absolutely, it does. Was it counselling sessions that you said you had when you were an adult?
Dr Kim Foster: Yeah, look, of course, going into mental health nursing, I realised the importance there of processing some of my past. I realised I was quite angry about my childhood and angry with my mother and my father and that I needed to do something about that. So counselling was helpful to process and make sense of my past and also to try to deal with those emotions that had been repressed really for a long time.
Dr Pamela Jenkins: Yeah, absolutely, and do you feel, after the counselling then, that there were any changes that you can pinpoint?
Dr Kim Foster: I wish I could say that I’d had counselling and suddenly, life was completely [laughter] new but I think, for me, I’ve actually gone to counselling several times over my life. I thought that I’d come to terms with it all but, of course, one of the things that I’ve realised and one of the counsellors said this to me... I said, ‘Why is it that my past just pops up at particular times and I thought I’d processed all of those feelings and then there they are again?’ The counsellor said, ‘At pivotal life moments, those significant past experiences and emotions will come up.’ So that was helpful to me because I think I thought I’d have counselling, I’d get fixed [laughter] and then I could move on but for me, as I said, it’s been a process of going to counselling, particularly when I’ve had difficult times. Now both my parents have died and I did have a difficult time when my mother died and so I have needed to process some things. I think it’s a lifelong thing really for me.
Dr Pamela Jenkins: It is and it does live with you. I think that experience will always live with you. Experiences stay with you and they’re so much a part of who you are I think. I’m left wondering if who I am now would be different if my mum hadn’t had a mental illness. I know that emotional resilience is one of your research areas.
Dr Kim Foster: Yes, and it’s probably no surprise in many ways. I think going into nursing was a practical decision but then going into mental health nursing... I was interested in mental health and I think I was good at it because I understood people and emotions in a way that perhaps some people didn’t because I’d had my past. On the other hand, I still had baggage from my past and so I had to deal with it. I think, for me, my past has really driven who I’ve become, as you say, and being very independent. I was very driven in my career and self-motivated. I wanted to achieve. I got myself educated. It kind of drove me and so it was a good thing in many ways and it’s led me to where I am now but being driven, high achieving and independent has a price as well.
Dr Pamela Jenkins: Yeah, academia is a tricky beast as well. That comes with its own troubles [laughter].
Dr Kim Foster: Oh, it does but the resilience thing, I think what it’s done is it’s driven values in me. I’ve developed this really strong sense of social justice and a compassion for people who live on the margins of life because I’ve been there. For me, I didn’t want to repeat the past and so I worked very hard to build a life that would not repeat that pattern. Part of that resilience was that I also don’t want to wallow in the problems all the time. I wanted to help myself move out of a victim status, I guess, and so I have really a drive when there are problems to try to help. How can we help people overcome difficulty? Resilience is really about how you can positively adapt to adversity. What are the resources that you can be given and that you can build to help yourself when you go through crap in life, basically? So for me, you can see that my whole career has really been kind of driven by my background in a lot of ways.
Dr Pamela Jenkins: Yeah, absolutely and it’s now a force for good because you’re doing such important work. I think what’s really important about what you just said is that, whether they’re interventions or whatever that form takes, they happen as soon as possible for children of parents with mental illness so that we’re not having these conversations when they’re much older and having to look back and unpick it all which probably will still have to happen but it would be great if they could get the help and support that they need as early as possible.
Dr Kim Foster: Look, if there’s one thing out of everything I’ve learnt, it’s about it happening as early as possible and even in the antenatal period because you can prevent so much distress for parents and children. You can help retain family structures. You can help prevent and offset potential mental health problems for children and so forth. So really prevention is where it’s at.
Dr Pamela Jenkins: Yeah, it’s all about prevention, absolutely. Sorry, just a slightly different tack here but you said you’ve got a son. I’m just interested in how your experience has impacted on you as a parent and the experience of being a parent. Has it affected that at all do you think?
Dr Kim Foster: Yeah, look, I was very conscious of that when I had him and I probably did a lot of work on myself because I was aware that parenting was going to probably be a bit of a challenge for me because I didn’t have a good model of parenting. I went to parenting classes [laughter] and I really tried to parent him as carefully as possible to give him a stable life and to give him what I hadn’t had, like a good education, loving parenting and those sorts of things. So I was really quite focused on trying to do my best for him. Now he might say I didn’t do a great job [laughter]. I don’t know.
Dr Pamela Jenkins: No, I’m sure he would not.
Dr Kim Foster: But certainly, I tried and I was aware that I wanted to break the intergenerational cycle in the family and I don’t know how successful I was there but he’s a lovely young man now. We were talking and I realised I’d always protected him and so I’d never really talked a lot about my family, my childhood and my experience. I realised recently that it’s probably time that I did because I’m not sure he’s always understood where I’ve come from with things because he doesn’t always know the background or my history. I tried to protect him from a lot of the trauma that I’d had in my past, I guess.
Dr Pamela Jenkins: And the not talking about it is interesting and so understandable. The reason that you’ve tried to protect him from it is because you don’t want to upset him with information about the trauma that you went through. It’s not about not wanting to talk about and disclose your mother and father’s mental illness. It’s just protecting him from the effects that it had on you.
Dr Kim Foster: My father actually came back into our lives when I was an adult a little bit and he actually babysat my son and those sorts of things and so there was a bit of a connection there. My mother not so much but we did meet with my mother occasionally, so he did meet both my parents but I always felt sad that he didn’t have grandparents really. My husband’s parents were in another country and so I always felt loss for him that he didn’t have those sorts of grandparent roles that a lot of kids have. But, you know, it is what it is and I think he’s developed a really good social network for himself and he’s got a lot of really solid friendships. He has some family connections and that’s the best, I guess, it’s going to be in our family.
Dr Pamela Jenkins: Do you plan to talk to him then a bit more about your past and your mum and dad?
Dr Kim Foster: Yeah, I mentioned to him that I was doing this podcast and I said, ‘Maybe you want to listen to some of it.’
Dr Pamela Jenkins: Yeah, that’s maybe a nice introduction and he can do that in his own space and time and come to you with questions. I’m sure I have many and I’m sure he’ll have many too [laughter].
Dr Kim Foster: Yeah, and he knows, of course, about the general information about my past but not really how it affected me.
Dr Pamela Jenkins: Do you ever think about your own mental health in the future or the mental health of your son?
Dr Kim Foster: Oh, absolutely [laughter]. I was worried about both of those things, as you do, because I knew enough to know that there was a genetic risk but whether that played out or not was another matter. It was interesting for me because I always knew I would never become psychotic [laughter]. I don’t know how to explain that but I was always quite clear that that probably wouldn’t happen to me [laughter]. I certainly have had some anxiety and depression and part of that has just been a natural response, in a sense, to the situation and also because, by nature, I’m probably a bit of an anxious temperament [laughter]. I did worry for my son just because of the genetic risk but it was helpful in counselling actually when he was little because I said, ‘I’m concerned,’ and the counsellor said, ‘Look, you can just provide him with the best childhood you can and it will or it won’t happen. You just do your best to give him a good grounding.’ So that was helpful.
Dr Pamela Jenkins: We keep saying this in the different interviews in the series but just because a parent has a mental illness does not mean that the children’s children will then have a mental illness. I completely echo what you were saying about that feeling and that knowledge of... that’s just not there; that risk of the psychosis. It’s interesting. I feel the same. My mum had schizoaffective disorder and so she had elements of schizophrenia and psychosis in there as well. I can recognise that that’s not something that’s there and it’s a very hard thing to put your finger on or articulate and equally, I also have a tendency toward being an anxious person. If there’s a difficult situation or if there’s a stressful time, it plays out in an anxious way but, again, I can see that that’s okay, manageable, and not as big a risk. I don’t know. I’m not articulating that well but I can understand that sentiment completely.
Dr Kim Foster: Yeah, because it is a big concern, I think, for a lot of kids whose parents have been very unwell. Certainly, in my research, for example, I talk with a lot of other adult children and one of them said, ‘Well, I chose not to have children because I was worried about passing on the risk.’ I thought, ‘At one level, I can understand that and at another level, you can’t live your life, in a sense, held hostage to the fact that you may or may not pass on a genetic vulnerability.’ We know that that’s just one piece of the puzzle and a lot of it is environment...
Dr Pamela Jenkins: Absolutely.
Dr Kim Foster: ...and support and those sorts of things that can offset the genetic risk.
Dr Pamela Jenkins: Absolutely. One in four people will experience a mental health problem at some point in their lives. I think, so often, we jump to the severe, acute and enduring mental illnesses but actually, the risk of that is so low. Goodness, it’s just been wonderful to talk to you. Thank you for being so open. It must be very hard to talk about it. Have you spoken about it in your work at all or elsewhere?
Dr Kim Foster: Yeah, I have and actually, I feel now I’ve come a long way because I can talk with you about this now and feel sad. I do. I feel sad which I think is a development for me because I used to be able to talk about it very intellectually and not engage with the feelings. I have talked about it in my work and I felt that when I did my PhD, I needed to be honest. If we’re going to destigmatise and we’re going to be transparent about it, I had to not pretend to do a research topic on something that actually was my personal experience. So I did speak about it and I was terrified [laughter]. I talked at a conference and I didn’t sleep the night before. I thought, ‘Oh, it’s going to ruin my career. All these people are going to look at me differently.’ Some people were, I think, a bit freaked out by it [laughter] because they knew me professionally and yet here they were hearing this whole other story. But actually, I did it for a reason and I have done it a few times, not a lot, but I have spoken at big conferences deliberately to share my experience and to talk about what helped me through it as a way to help other people really and to be honest about it because I don’t think we’re going to destigmatise this without people sharing their experiences. It’s an interesting space to be. I’m a professor. I’m a researcher. I have a reputation in the field and then you stand up [laughter] and you talk about your childhood. So that’s been an interesting process but I think it’s been helpful for other people. I’ve written about it as well in books. I always try to protect my family’s identity because this is my story and it’s not for me to share theirs, as such, so I never use names, places, or things like that. I’ve always tried to be careful about that.
Dr Pamela Jenkins: Yeah, absolutely and it’s so refreshing to hear somebody be open about their own experience. What’s been great speaking with you today has been hearing from a different perspective of somebody who’s gone into care. Often, that’s lost and we don’t recognise that the child of a parent with a mental illness may also be a child who lives in care.
Dr Kim Foster: Yes, and even though things have moved on in terms of family care, kids who are fostered out and kids who are adopted are all forms of care and it’s not an uncommon experience for kids in families such as these which is another reason I share my story because it is unusual but I know there are many other people who have had fostering and adoption experiences. Our extended family came in to help at different times and took us for holidays and things like that. They basically adopted two of our siblings. So I think that happens in a lot of families and grandparents, aunts, uncles and extended family will take over the care of the children.
Dr Pamela Jenkins: Yeah, that happened with me. It was my aunt and uncle that took over the care. There is a feeling of just that ache of wishing that my mum and dad were able to be present for my boys. It’s not an envy that’s in bad feeling or bad spirit but when you see grandparents active with their grandchildren, there’s just a nice pang of envy of – ‘Gosh, how lucky are those grandchildren?’ [Laughter].
Dr Kim Foster: Oh, exactly and I still look at people and I think, ‘Gee, that’s a lovely normal family,’ [laughter] whatever a normal family is, right?
Dr Pamela Jenkins: Whatever that is, exactly [laughter]. Everybody has got something.
Dr Kim Foster: I always thought, for my son... you know all those events in life, like sports carnivals, winning awards and things like that, you always want a little cheer squad of family to be there. That often wasn’t there and for me either. I did several degrees and got a PhD and all those sorts of milestones, I never had family there. Even now, I will look at other people who get PhDs and their whole family jumps up and down, goes on Twitter and there are balloons. I think, ‘Wow! Wouldn’t that be nice [laughter] to have people who are close to you proud of you?’
Dr Pamela Jenkins: Gosh. I don’t mean this to sound trite or patronising at all but I think what you’ve achieved is absolutely incredible. The outcome of your situation and how well you’ve done with your career is just... I take my hat off to you, honestly.
Dr Kim Foster: Well, thank you and look, all my siblings are all very different and we’ve all done different things in our lives. I think all my siblings are amazing for what they’ve achieved and I think we didn’t do it alone. We’ve had people around us, family and friends, that have helped us.
Dr Pamela Jenkins: It’s just an example of how a traumatic and difficult situation can have an outcome that’s really, really positive and I think it’s so important for people to hear that. It gives hope and positivity.
Dr Kim Foster: Well, thank you for that. It’s funny that you never feel in your life that you’re necessarily a role model but I think I’ve learnt over time that perhaps I can share a bit of what’s helped me. Although obviously, I’ve done a lot of work in my life, it’s been the people around me. I had extended family. I had an aunt and uncle. I had two grandmothers. There have been people in our lives, like teachers at school and friends, etcetera, who have really helped me and colleagues at work. So it’s been all of that that’s helped me achieve where I’m at. If I were to leave it with other people, it’s about accepting the hand of help from others or accepting friendship and support from others which is okay and that’s how you get through things. I’ve had to learn that myself; to accept help and to accept support [laughter]. I’m very grateful for all of that.
Dr Pamela Jenkins: Yeah, people want to help. They do. Just hearing you say about when you got your PhD and not having somebody there to wave the banner. I was fortunate enough to have family supporting me and my aunt and uncle have always flown the flag for me since my dad died and then I went to live with them. They were supportive of me and my mum and so I’m so pleased that, throughout your life, you’ve found those connections that you’ve then gained support from.
Dr Kim Foster: Incredibly important, yeah. It’s that notion that it takes a village. Well, it’s taken a village to raise me [laughter]. To all my family friends and my partner and my son, it really is those connections that help you through.
Dr Pamela Jenkins: Kim, thank you so so much for being here and for coming to talk to me today. It has just been a pleasure and I am hoping that our paths will cross again in the future. We just are delighted to have had you here, so thank you so much.
Dr Kim Foster: Thank you. It’s been great talking with you, Pam, and to hear your story as well or some of your story and to be part of this podcast series. I hope it’s helpful to other people and I’m really honoured to be part of it, so thanks.
Dr Pamela Jenkins: Thank you, Kim. Thank you. Speak soon.
A huge thanks to Professor Kim Foster joining us all the way from Melbourne, Australia. What another brilliant and hugely insightful chat. I found Kim so inspiring to talk to and I hope that you found her just as inspiring to listen to.ct your GP, the Samaritans on:
Thank you so much for being with us today. Subscribe to our feed so you get future episodes automatically downloaded and if you know someone who’d benefit from hearing these stories we’re sharing, please let them know we’re here. That’s really important. We really want people to know that they’re not alone. This is a Bespoken Media production with music and sound design by Joel Cox. See you next time.