Clients frequently ask me how mental illness affects divorce. Answering this question requires an understanding of the difference between chronic mental illness and the temporary mental and emotional problems that frequently affect people going through divorce. Divorce is a difficult time, and most people need assistance in navigating through the process. If someone finds out that their spouse is having a long term affair and leaves them for someone else we shouldn’t be surprised if they are depressed. Will situational depression affect your custody case? Probably not. What will affect your case is your inability to take care of your children.
Most judges don’t care if someone is in therapy or is taking an antidepressant at the time of the divorce to help them through this period. What matters is your ability to assist your children with their emotional upheaval and to continue taking care of both your own daily activities and those of your children. Do not be afraid to reach out for help during this traumatic time. I would suggest that you do just that and take advantage of any resource available that will help you be the best person and best parent you can be, not only for the best outcome of your divorce case, but for yourself and your children.
Some cases involve diagnoses of serious conditions such as borderline personality or narcissistic personality disorder. Even then, these diagnoses will be significant only if you can show behavior that affects parenting and makes it impossible for a parent to take care of the children’s needs or appropriately make important parental decisions. Is a parent too ill to get out of bed in the morning? Do they forget to pick their children up from school? Are they unable to make meals for the children or help them with their homework? Does their illness result in a parent screaming, yelling and hitting a child? Is there abuse or neglect? How do the children interact with the parent with the diagnosis? Do they fear and avoid that parent or can they generally ignore or cope with the parents’ behaviors?
A judge may ask for a custody evaluation to figure out how serious the mental condition is. This evaluation will involve both parents and the children. It usually includes psychological testing both parents will participate in, a review of past mental health records, and interviews with both parents, the children, past therapists or physicians, school personnel, and often other individuals who have observed the parent and children, such as coaches or neighbors. Evaluators sometimes make recommendations regarding the mental health of the parent and children and about who can better handle the physical and legal custody of the children and whether the mental illness truly affects parenting.
Mental illness complicates divorces and frequently increases the cost. Besides an evaluator to complete a custody evaluation it is often necessary to have a guardian ad litem appointed who will represent the interests of the children. Given the importance of your family’s health, you need representation by an attorney who understands these very complex issues.
The family law attorneys at Paule, Camazine & Blumenthal have extensive experience with mental health issues.