Helping clients with mental health issues cope with divorce is a daunting task. Attorneys representing such clients should team up with health professionals.
By Lynne Strober, Family Lawyer, and Sharon Ryan Montgomery, Psychologist
These days, mental health issues are often at the forefront of many discussions. Suicide is burgeoning; we are told it is up 25% all over and up to 30% in some areas since the 1990s. Ordinary citizens, celebrities, and schoolchildren are suffering from anxiety and depression.
Divorce and separation are among the most stressful life events. It is often impossible to determine the “chicken or the egg” relationship between the demise of a marriage and how mental illness plays into it. Separation is almost always a time of high anxiety no matter what a person’s prior medical or psychological condition.
Almost all individuals faced with divorce or marital separation typically go through a normal grieving process, but they are not suffering from mental illness per se. Instead, they are making thought-out decisions to make a necessary life change or responding to a spouse’s desire to do so. This article discusses how best to serve mentally-ill clients who are considering divorce.
The Partnership between Family Lawyers and Mental Health Professionals
Mental health issues, when present, require treatment, and the divorce process may exacerbate that condition. Therefore, it is advisable that a person who is going through a stressful event such as a divorce have people around them with a thumb on the pulse of their condition. Attorneys representing such clients should coordinate and consult with mental health professionals – particularly those with expertise in the impact of mental illness on divorce and vice-versa – who can advise attorneys on how to identify mentally-ill clients early in the divorce process, and then address the client’s situation and behavior so it doesn’t derail the process. Clients with mental health issues may require additional treatment as well as attention from their attorneys more frequently; it may be providing a lifeline or support to the client who needs to know that they will be all right at the end of the case.
The divorce process may exacerbate a client’s mental health issues; without psychological support, they may become immobilized by feelings of hopelessness or despair about their situation. This article discusses how family lawyers can best serve mentally-ill clients who are considering divorce.
Helping Clients with Mental Health Issues Cope with Divorce: The Role of the Family Lawyer
Individuals faced with mental health issues and the possibility of divorce may benefit from meeting with one or more matrimonial attorneys to address their anxieties even if they are not ready to proceed so that they understand what their future rights will be. By consulting with an attorney he or she will learn their rights and be educated to the extent possible about the outcome if a divorce is in fact pursued. The potential litigant may also have particular concerns as to how their mental health diagnosis and/or treatments may impact certain aspects of the divorce; ie, custody, child support, etc.
Individuals with certain types of mental disorders or emotional issues may present unique challenges for certain attorneys, and the “goodness of fit” between the attorney and client is even more crucial than in less complex cases. Therefore, finding the right attorney may require several consultations before a comfort level and cooperative relationship can be achieved.
While a potential client may learn about the laws from more than one attorney there may be a specific attorney that is more able to explain the law to that client in a more comforting way or the multiple appointments may help provide a general sense of comfort to a potential client.
The Partnership between Mental Health Professionals and Family Lawyers
As a general policy, given the inherent stressors of divorce, attorneys need to consider more frequently whether to encourage a client to see a therapist or reach out for help in a timely manner.
Attorneys should talk to their clients to be sure that each client is able to cope with the stress of their divorce and explore the needs and emotional adjustments of the children. Will family or individual therapy be beneficial for any member of the family? Are the children being impacted or do they have pre-existing vulnerabilities to reconsider?
We all need to be increasingly sensitive to the mental health issues of those around us and recommend assistance where indicated.
In such circumstances, a treating professional can provide insightful information to the attorney. Communicating and collaboration with mental health professionals early on can provide important guidance in managing not only the clients’ expectations and apprehensiveness but the overall outcome of the case. It is always necessary to obtain written releases to discuss the situation with the treating or consulting mental health professionals. If a spouse suffers from mental illness it may be important to receive expert input on how to best work with that spouse including how to advise that spouse about the institution of the divorce proceedings.
Medical and mental health professionals should encourage their patients to receive educational information from experienced family law attorneys. Many therapists and practitioners are seeing more and more people who feel immobilized about proceeding. It may feel like “Ground Hog Day” to some litigants. In order to get over that, it may be necessary for a potential divorce client to realize that the situation is not hopeless and that there is a life after divorce.
Helping Clients with Mental Health Issues Cope with Divorce: Attorney-Client Privilege
The client with a mental health issue might benefit from the support and presence of a third-party family member or friend to ease their anxieties and serve as another pair of ears during communications with counsel. However, attorneys need to advise of the legal ramifications of the presence of a third party observer as the presence of the third party removes the attorney-client privilege. The client and the companion need to be told of the risks of having the third party join the meeting as the third party could be questioned regarding the meeting. A second set of ears to listen and raise concerns about proceeding may help crystalize what’s going on for the potential client.
Above all, we need to be observant of the emotional needs and vulnerabilities of our clients and to recommend professional help in a timely manner. While years ago, clients may have been reluctant to hear or follow such advice, in our more informed society, with the divorce rate hovering around 50%, it is common knowledge that psychological support during a divorce is not only beneficial but can be indicated. It’s really about how the attorney approaches the topic of obtaining professional assistance and normalizing it in the best possible way. For most divorcing parents their children’s adjustment to divorce is a primary concern, and how they negotiate the process and respond emotionally will have a direct bearing on their children’s psychological adaptation.
Mental illness can be situationally induced or long-standing. The issue is being alert to the effect it potentially may have on a client’s ability to participate in the divorce process. Ask if the client has a prior mental health history or, is being treated, anxious or depressed currently. Create a partnership of care that includes education for clients and potential clients.
Lynne Strober is a family law attorney and Dr. Sharon Ryan Montgomery is a forensic psychologist at New Ways for Families in New Jersey. New Ways is a new intervention designed to avert or mitigate high conflict situations during separation or divorce. www.newwaysnj.com
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