FAQs: Mental Illness in the Divorce Process
Therapy and divorce often work hand-in-hand to better understand and get a handle on family law situations. While family law attorneys know the divorce process includes more than just advice from attorneys, many therapists may feel in the dark about the work that goes on beyond therapy.
Q: What is the best method to address mental illness in the divorce process?
A: As litigation is not the only option, and the system is not completely fit to handle mental health issues, all divorce process options should be presented.
We encourage clients and their children to work with their own mental health professionals so they can acquire the skills to deal with the person with the mental illness in the best possible way.
In the collaborative process, there are always two attorneys as well as a mental health professional that acts as a coach to help couples move through their divorce. The mental health professional’s role is not necessarily to give advice or a diagnosis, but to help attorneys better understand the situation.
In this process, there is a better ability to work with the parties to help find a solution that fits the family and helps the children get the help they might need.
Q: How educated are attorneys and family law judges regarding mental illness and personality disorders? Where are they getting that education?
A: Unfortunately, mental illness and personality disorder knowledge varies in the courtroom. In cases that involve these issues, a child representative or guardian ad litem who solely represents the children's interests should be present.
In these scenarios, it is best to identify these illnesses as fast as possible, but attorneys should also attempt to educate the person with the illness. Not many people have knowledge about mental health problems, and sometimes they disregard the issues altogether or discount what spouses are saying, which is very hard to overcome.
Clients and patients should advocate for themselves with their attorneys on these issues. Attorneys should then be taking those issues either to the child representative or to the judge.
Q: How can lawyers protect their clients from a spouse with financial ability combined with untreated mental illness to continue forcing them to engage in court? For example: multiple motions, request for documents, etc.
A: Much of this has to do with the power and control dynamic. An attorney should try to take as much control away from the spouse. The most effective manner is to apply reverse pressure. If an attorney can make someone feel like they are doing too much, most times they will back off.
Q: I am a therapist working with children. I have a client whose parents are in an intense custody fight, and I was asked to provide clinical reports. I have found some parents cherry-pick my words in favor of themselves. Do you have any suggestions of how I can make sure the report is not taken out of context?
A: Usually and unfortunately, this is unavoidable as each party is trying to gain the upper hand. Provide a report that is as neutral as possible from your patient’s perspective and, if possible, have those conversations with the child’s representative or guardian ad litem.
While in litigation, the child’s guardian ad litem, in theory, is the neutral voice in explaining these situations to the court. Most experienced judges will ignore the cherry-picked statements and choose what is helpful to the couple’s specific situation.
Q: What do you think a court system that accommodated the reality of mental illness and personality disorders would look like?
A: An egregious amount of funding to hire more judges.
More judges would reduce caseloads so that cases may be heard more regularly. In our current environment, judges are exhausted and can’t provide individuals with the attention and time they need. Judges need time too to take a pause. Pushing an issue forward too fast is not the solution.
Mental health training also needs to be a priority so that issues may be addressed. There needs to be more education on these issues. In the collaborative community, these conversations occur often, and they should appear more in the court system.
Q: How can therapists get referrals from attorneys?
A: Network, network, network. We always refer mental health professionals when we have a client in need of a therapist.
Making sure there's a professional in every lane provides better service, and many attorneys conduct their work in this way as well. Attorneys are looking to have options for their clients, but they don't necessarily seek them out themselves so the best way for therapists to get their foot in the door is to present themselves as a potential solution.
Further, many local bar associations such as Illinois State, Chicago, Lake County, DuPage County and others are frequently looking for presenters and mental health is always a ripe topic – especially as we are coming out from COVID restrictions. Therapists, individually or as a group, can reach out to these organizations to provide insights about their practice and what they can offer.