Consider this: in any given year, a quarter of Americans qualify for a diagnosis of mental illness. For some, this is a passing bout of depression, while for others mentalillness is a serious, lifelong experience that can impact their ability to hold a job or participate in the community. But regardless of an individual’s diagnosis, one thing remains constant and that’s the stigma associated with mental illness.
For parents going through a divorce, the stigma of mental illness can be overwhelming – and it can have legal repercussions in terms of custody. So how can you protect yourself and your children? When it comes to custody issues, your children’s well-being may hang in the balance, contingent on the court’s perception of your mental fitness.
Among individuals managing a mental illness, a large number lack a diagnosis. In family court, this is a big deal. What can be viewed as a manageable health condition if properly diagnosed is, sans diagnosis, potentially a red flag and sign of a neglectful or unfit parent.
This is why we recommend you work to obtain a mental illness diagnosis early in the process. If you can demonstrate to the judge or mediator that you’re being proactive in managing your condition, you’re more likely to retain at least partial custody of your children.
Remember, especially if you’ve just received a mental illness diagnosis, your status in custody disputes may be tenuous. Advocate for yourself, but tread carefully; stigma around mental illness can lead people to interpret an individual’s emotions as more volatile than they actually are. Your goal is to put your children’s needs first in this process, not necessarily your own desires for them.
If you feel confident in your former spouse’s ability to provide for your children’s needs and don’t believe the court will grant you physical custody, do your best to retain joint legal custody. This will allow you the right to make decisions about your child’s care. For those not yet in the position to have physical custody of their children, legal custody can help keep you actively involved until your recovery allows for a change in status.
Know The Lingo
In addition to taking a proactive approach to handling your mental illness, one of the most important things you can do during the course of your custody dispute is to know the language that will be used against you, including both lay and medical terminology. We recommend hiring a lawyer who has worked with mentally ill individuals before, as even small lapses in language – “crazy” instead of “mentally ill,” “manic-depression” instead of “bipolar disorder” – can make a serious difference in how you’re treated.
It’s also important to pursue a forensic psychiatry evaluation before going to court. Though this may seem excessive and invasive, the forensic psychiatrist’s report can help you determine exactly what arguments might be leveraged against you, how unbiased parties view your condition, and what information you can present in your defense.
Similarly, your own psychiatrist or psychopharmacologist should develop a formal treatment plan that you can present to the court. Successful treatment with medication and ongoing compliance with that treatment plan are among the most important factors in the custody decisions when mental illness is involved.
Among the most challenging issues associated with mental illness is the co-occurrence of alcohol or drug dependence. Indeed, of the 45 million American adults who struggle with mental illness in any given year, 8.9 million also struggle with substance abuse. Parents who have a dual diagnosis are among the least likely to have custody of their children, as they are less likely to be treatment compliant and more likely to put their children in dangerous situations.
If you have a dual diagnosis, you’ll need to be particularly aggressive in seeking help, most likely by pursuing in-patient treatment. This may mean temporarily forfeiting all claims to custody, but experienced lawyers and advocates can help arrange for visitation. Allowing children to visit their parents during psychiatric treatment helps them to maintain important bonds and builds the foundation for reunification post-treatment.
Ultimately, as an individual with a mental illness, it’s important to be realistic about your standing during child custody decisions. No matter how you personally perceive your mental health status, children are perceptive and they’re affected by your emotional state. Even if you aren’t physically neglectful, your children will sense the emotional upheaval and they may feel insecure or act out in response.
Additionally, mental illness – especially newly diagnosed mental illness – can be unpredictable. For example, if you have a bad reaction to medication or your symptoms develop further, you may descend into psychosis and be unable to recognize your inability to care for your children. Though many people with mental illness parent successfully, recognize that the court needs to tread carefully and monitor the situation. Restricting your interaction with your children is personally detrimental, but has fewer consequences for the legal system than permitting custody and putting a child in danger.
Get The Facts – Then Get Help
Every day, parents lose custody of their children because they are mentally ill, even if they are perfectly capable of caring for their children. So why does it happen? In the majority of cases, these parents believe that their own actions are enough to put them in good stead before the court and that the truth will come out. Any experienced lawyer will tell you this isn’t the case.
If you’re mentally ill and concerned about maintaining custody of your children or want to revise your custody arrangement, you need aggressive legal support – you need Rowdy G. Williams Law Firm.
Contact Rowdy G. Williams Law Firm today to learn more about how we can protect your right to parent. We take a sensitive yet informed approach to custody and mental illness, bringing both the latest research and years of courtroom experience to bear on your case. Simply put, we don’t let stigma decide your custody arrangement.
Mental illness doesn’t automatically make you an unfit parent, but plenty of courts treat it that way. It’s time to set that argument to the side and put your family first.