Parenting and mental health issues in family law

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Often one of the most difficult parts of separation is the fact that one or both of the parents are experiencing serious mental health issues or other problems that have either led to the breakdown of the relationship or been part of the dynamics of the relationship for a long period of time.

These matters are difficult and often one parent (for example the healthy parent) will use such failings and health concerns of the other parent to limit contact with the children and cause difficulties. On the other hand, the parent who has had such difficulties in the past may play down their difficulties and seek extensive contact with the children despite not having received proper treatment and / or being fully recovered from their mental health issues.

In these circumstances, the parent should remember that the Family Court has always determined that children should have a substantial and meaningful relationship with both parents. Obviously, that cannot occur where children are at risk and especially where one’s mental health, or other issues, may seriously be in question. However, that does not mean the system does not provide for time for parents to heal and overcome their difficulties and for children to spend time with them on a gradually increasing basis as they move forward with their lives.

In some situations the trauma of separation itself can be enough to cause serious mental health issues. In these difficult situations, the following are some things that I feel are important for clients to take into account and consider when looking at parenting arrangements:-

  1. Be honest with your lawyer about your past problems and what your current diagnosis is – your family lawyer is there to help you maximise your time with the children and they cannot do this unless they know fully of your past problems;
  • Most experienced family lawyers are very good at being able to assist parties to get to the right experts to improve their health and to manage their health improvements through a process. For instance, a parent may have been so depressed that they threatened suicide, or even attempted suicide, in the presence of the other parent or children. Without a doubt, that is a serious issue and it needs to be addressed by the parent who undertook those actions. Often parents who sadly have those incidents will blame the other parent for their behaviour. The fact is that treatment is necessary and treatment is available. The parent needs to understand that if they can get themselves healthy then the children will be able to enjoy more substantial time with them sooner;
  • It is ok in most cases for contact to progress slowly between the unhealthy parent and the children if necessary. Sometimes clients with mental health issues and other problems are concerned about the fact that the children do not see them as often as they would like and that this may impact on their relationship with them. In my experience, it is more important to focus on the long term issues of getting oneself better and into a proper mental stage so that the children can then enjoy their relationship with the parent;
  • Parents need to understand that in these situations children will be adults for far longer than they are children and the parent who is suffering mental health issues and their support group around them need to sometimes take a long term view in the interest of improving their health so that a better environment is created for the children.

If a client is experiencing mental health issues, then our job as family lawyers is not to ignore it or abandon them, but to encourage them to get help and assistance and to deal with the problem head on. By dealing with the problem head on, seeing experts and undergoing therapy, the parent can start moving towards a better place sooner rather than later.

Written by Brett Hartley

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