In the U.S., one in five people suffer from a mental illness. Mental health is a growing concern in this country, and it impacts virtually every facet of life. In family law cases, it’s important to handle such issues with care.
In a recent issue of Lawyer Monthly Magazine, our own Monica Nemec was recently interviewed to discuss her work addressing mental health issues in family law cases. Below are the key issues she raised:
Divorce can exacerbate mental illness
Going through a divorce is a huge stressor for anyone involved. For someone who’s already suffering from a mental health issue, this could make their condition worse – causing them to respond in ways that could hurt their case.
For instance, a person who is suffering from depression may turn to drugs or alcohol to self-medicate during a divorce. Their ex could use this behavior against them in court – as evidence that they should not have child custody. This could cause the depressed individual’s mental state to further deteriorate – making a temporary behavior permanent.
Weaponizing mental illness in court
Mental health allegations can sometimes be used as a weapon in court. In litigation cases, one angry ex may make baseless claims that their spouse is “crazy” or “unstable” – or may even request that they undergo a mental health evaluation. Such tactics can be used just to plant the idea in a judge’s mind that an individual may be unfit to parent. This can often derail proceedings and distract from the most important issues of the case.
Distinguishing crime from illness
Current laws fail to differentiate between people with and without mental illness. Monica noted instances where the court can treat an abuser the same as an individual experiencing a psychotic episode.
For instance, because the burden of proof to seek a Domestic Violence Restraining Order is low, one spouse could get such an order against their spouse for exhibiting unusual behavior associated with mental illness. This order would force the individual to move out of their home immediately. For someone experiencing an acute mental health episode, being forced out of their home is likely to make their condition even worse. This could lead them to homelessness, substance abuse and other unfavorable outcomes.
New nation-wide mental health resource
July 16, 2022 will mark the launch of the new national mental health crisis hotline: 9-8-8. This will be a resource for anyone in the U.S. experiencing a mental health or substance abuse emergency to receive a nuanced response from a trained counselor. Currently, people usually dial 9-1-1 for a mental health emergency, which ends up involving law enforcement.
In family law cases, Monica hopes this hotline will result in courts viewing cases with a 9-8-8 history differently from this with a 9-1-1 history – to further distinguish mental illness from criminality.
The role of a family law attorney in supporting clients in mental distress
Not all attorneys handle clients with mental health issues well, and mental health is not handled consistently across the industry. However, Monica points out that “in family law cases, it is commonplace for people to be at their lowest just as the stakes are highest.” It is normal for clients to need professional help. Family law attorneys should be attuned to this and should be ready to advise their clients of options for help available to them.