The Impact of Parental Mental Illness on Divorce and Child Custody Proceedings

Family law disputes are already complicated and stressful. When one or both parents have a mental illness, these issues become even more complex. Understanding how a mental health diagnosis could impact custody disputes is important so you can take steps to protect your child’s best interests.

Facing family law issues? Let us help. Call Olmstead & Olmstead at 703-260-8752 to set up a time to talk to our Manassas family law attorneys.

The Intersection of Parental Mental Illness and Divorce

Mental illness is incredibly common, so don’t worry—whatever issues you’re facing, other parents have successfully navigated the same problems. An experienced family law attorney will know how mental illness affects your case and how to change their approach accordingly. When parents have mental health concerns, they may struggle to get through divorce effectively and even have a hard time co-parenting their children. Much depends on their specific diagnosis, its severity, and whether or not it’s controlled with medication and therapy.

Mental illness can affect parenting in a variety of ways. When a parent is in the throes of a mental health episode, they may struggle to regulate their own emotions, handle the cognitive load of parenting, and make appropriate decisions for themselves and their children. As a result, children may experience some degree of instability at home.

Unfortunately, divorce can further aggravate existing mental health concerns, making it even harder for parents to provide the care and stability their children need.

How Mental Illness Can Affect Child Custody Cases

Whether you’re going through a divorce or a child custody dispute, you should know how a mental health diagnosis may come into play. To start, it’s important to remember that the child’s best interests are always the driving force in these discussions. This can be hard for a parent to hear, especially when their diagnosis or their management of it may negatively affect their child.

Still, remember that mental illness is fairly common—the court is unlikely to assume that a parent is unfit simply because of an existing diagnosis. They will look at the parent’s ability to meet the child’s needs, management of their condition, and relationship with their child.

Perhaps the most important factor in these cases is the parent’s ability to be a reliable caretaker. Again, this depends a lot on the specifics of the diagnosis and whether or not it is controlled.

Consider, for example, an extreme case of bipolar disorder. A parent in the midst of an extreme manic episode may spend all of their money on a new hobby or bring multiple partners into the family home for risky sexual encounters. In both of these cases, they would be acting against their child’s best interests.

On the flip side, think about a parent with a moderate case of major depressive disorder. While they occasionally have days of listlessness and apathy, they manage to meet their child’s needs, keep the home tidy, keep the child fed, and otherwise be a capable parent. There are obviously significant differences between these cases.

Mental Health Evaluations

When one parent has a mental illness, it’s not uncommon for their ex-partner to request a mental health evaluation. In some cases, this is used as a way to intimidate a co-parent rather than to assess their competence as a parent; regardless, the parent with the diagnosis should cooperate. A mental health evaluation may include interviews, psychological testing, and an in-depth look at medical records. The expert doing the evaluation may then bring their findings to the court and provide their recommendations to the judge.

Whether you are a parent with a mental illness or the parent navigating family law concerns with a mentally ill co-parent, know that you are not alone. There are resources available to help you and support you throughout this process.

Discuss Your Legal Options with Olmstead & Olmstead

When your parenting rights are on the line, it is time to bring a lawyer in to help. The team at Olmstead & Olmstead has extensive experience in family law, and we’re ready to use that experience to assist you. Schedule your free consultation now by calling us at 703-260-8752 or sending us a message online.


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