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How Mental Health Disorders Impact Divorce

upset woman resting her head in her hands

Mental Health Disorders and how it impacts your divorce

In a divorce, your entire life and personal circumstances impact the process and the outcome. Mental health disorders can have a huge impact on divorces, break-ups, co-parenting agreements, and other relationship issues. By taking the time to learn about mental health disorders, addictions, and other personality disorders and how they can impact your family law case, you will be better prepared to deal with what is coming your way and make a plan.

If you are currently experiencing a mental health crisis, don’t wait. Contact the national helpline for substance abuse and addition.

What Qualifies as a Mental Health Disorder?

There are several different conditions that are listed as mental health disorders. Essentially, any condition that affects the operation or proper function of the brain qualifies as a mental health disorder. The textbook definition refers to these conditions as “disorders that affect your mood, thinking, and behavior.” Some level of mental fatigue is experienced by everyone going through divorce. A disorder is different.

Since these neurological or biological conditions affect mood, thinking, and behavior, they can have a tremendous impact on a divorce, which places stress on everyone facing it. It’s only natural that mental health disorders would also have an impact on divorce and child custody proceedings.

Some of the most common conditions include depression, eating disorders, anxiety conditions, personality disorders, and addictive behaviors. These can be caused by external elements and some have a genetic factor to consider, as well. Regardless of the cause, though, it’s important to find the right treatment plan and to understand the impacts of those conditions when making a plan.

For those going through a divorce, that also means finding a way to manage the condition during the proceedings for either yourself or your soon-to-be ex-spouse (STBX).

It’s important to note that you or your spouse can have a mental health condition or addiction without it being diagnosed. Just because you haven’t seen a therapist or sought treatment of any kind doesn’t mean that the issues don’t exist– it simply means that they haven’t been diagnosed yet.

Some people might be wondering about the verbiage– we’ve used a few different terms and will continue to do so. Let’s make it clear from the beginning. There is no difference between a mental health “condition” and a mental health “disorder” other than the name. They’re interchangeable.

There is a specific list of diagnostic questions that is used to determine whether or not a person has a diagnosable mental health disorder. This comprehensive list covers every aspect of mental and emotional health to see where people stand, what issues they are struggling with, and what mental health conditions that might point to.

People do not have to be diagnosed to have a mental health condition, of course, but getting diagnosed is the first step to getting treated and getting life back on track.

Mental Health Disorders and how it impacts your divorce

Are Addictions Considered Mental Health Disorders?

Yes, addictions qualify as a mental health disorder. They are still being studied, and there is a lot to learn, but there is clear proof that addictive behavior is a mental or emotional issue or both.
There are different types of addictions, beyond just alcohol and drugs, and they can all take their toll on relationships. They can also have a serious impact on the proceedings and outcome of a divorce hearing. Substance abuse is a specific factor in the analysis process and mental health conditions are also factored in when determining custody and parenting time.

There are some proponents and professionals that have been studying addiction who want to put it in a classification of its own. That is, rather than lumping it in with the rest of the mental health conditions, they feel that the research is compelling enough to create its own category of conditions because addiction is not just a mental health condition.
Addiction is a physical, emotional, and mental disease that takes a toll on the lives of billions of people every single year.

We’ll talk about addictions more in a later chapter, but for now, you should understand that yes, they are part of the family of mental health disorders. There are also several factors that can cause, lead to, or exacerbate addictions, so those will need to be considered, as well.
Sometimes, people use addiction to escape other mental health issues, or the addiction is comorbid (exists simultaneously) with an anxiety or depression disorder, for example.

How Specific Conditions May Affect Custody and Parenting Time

There are several factors at play here. When a parent has a mental health condition, it could impact their ability to function or be a qualified parent during their time alone with the child. Some parents are unpredictable because they don’t manage their conditions well or they are not receiving proper treatment, thereby posing a potential threat to the child.
The judge may not want to grant custody or visitation to a parent that appears unstable or unable to provide a stable living environment for the child, because that would not be in the child’s best interest.
In some cases, even when one person has a handle on their condition, their spouse may attempt to use it against them to gain custody, improve their own case, or for other nefarious reasons.

There are endless cases of ugly divorces where one spouse has attempted to use addiction, mental illness, or other “dirt” to threaten the other parent’s access to the child. Mental illness and addiction are not weapons– they are serious issues.

That’s why it is so important for you to take the time to learn about these conditions and how they may affect your divorce and custody proceedings. You have to be prepared for anything, and after years of experience in the industry, I can tell you that truly means anything.

Mental Health Disorders and how it impacts your divorce

Mental illness and addiction can affect custody and parenting by:
● Limiting how much time a parent can spend with a child
● Requiring supervised visitations for parents that are deemed “unstable”
● Creating situations where custody is denied to a parent because of an addiction or mental health condition
● Causing a child to be placed in the “system” when there is no fit parent available to provide custody and a stable living environment
● Causing struggles in co-parenting and shared parenting agreements that last well beyond the initial case
● Creating an ongoing point of contention for spouses who are always looking for a reason to create or exacerbate conflict

Children aren’t pawns, but are often used like them during a divorce proceeding, and that can have an effect on the children in several ways. It starts with the custody and co-parenting arrangements, but the real impact is on the child’s relationship with that parent and their own self esteem. Of course, when you factor in the additional impact of the mental illness on parent-child relationships, you can see how the extra strain could only serve to make things more challenging for everyone involved.

The Many Emotions of Divorce

Divorce is an emotional process for everyone! Even the most amicable divorces will have the stress of the separation and major life changes involved. Of course people’s emotions are going to be on high alert.

Every divorcing couple experiences the following:
● Anger
● Sadness
● Grief/Feelings of Loss
● Stress and Anxiety
● Uncertainty and Fear
● Resentment

Mental health disorders, personality disorders, and other emotional issues affect several areas of daily life. Divorce is already an emotionally-charged process, full of so many feelings and issues that need to be resolved, including those mentioned above. Adding a mental health disorder or addiction to the mix only makes those feelings that much more apparent and difficult to deal with.

In some cases, divorces are amicable and the only real stress will be any impact caused by mental health disorders or addictions. However, that is far more often the exception than the rule. In the following chapters we will dig into the specific emotions, conditions, and ramifications that come from divorcing and mental illness.

Anger and Resentment

Anger can be a dangerous and unpleasant emotion, but it is one that is all-too-often at the center of many divorces, custody cases, and relationship battles. People struggle with communication and conflict, and in many cases, end up left with nothing but anger and resentment because they were unable to succeed at their relationship or because the other person hurt them in some way. It is often said that anger is a secondary emotion and the primary emotion underlying anger can be many things, hurt, pride, rejection, fear, sadness, etc.
When people struggle with borderline personality disorder, bipolar disorder, or even addiction, anger can fuel the fire. Unresolved anger can even lead to addiction or substance abuse in some cases, and can exacerbate just about any emotional condition, including depression and anxiety.
When people are angry, their bodies are anxious and in a state of unrest. It’s only natural that their already-taxed mental and emotional state will respond in kind. This also goes hand-in-hand with resentment. People tend to develop these feelings when they are in a dissatisfying relationship or when their partner isn’t living up to their expectations.

If left unaddressed, a sense of resentment can become the kryptonite for any relationship, even after a divorce. In order to maintain any level of contact, it will be imperative for the spouses to be able to forgive each other and move forward. Digging in to the underlying primary emotion with a counselor can help resolve or evolve the emotion of anger. When mental health disorders and mood disorders are factored in, that can be nearly impossible to fathom, but it is possible! A great therapist coupled with a very willing participant can tame anger.

Sadness

For people who struggle with depression and bipolar disorder, specifically, sadness can be an emotion that makes divorce more difficult. The feeling of heartbreak and having to rearrange your life, along with that sense of failure that many people get after realizing that their marriage isn’t going to last, is often made worse by existing mental health conditions related to depression and moods.

Mood disorders characterized by bouts of mania and depression could also be exacerbated by divorce, making the depression periods last longer or causing anxiety and undue irritability during the manic episodes. There are so many variables to consider here, which is why you should pay attention to the specific condition that you or your soon-to-be ex are dealing with and how it could be affected by the emotions involved in divorces and custody cases, including sadness.

When you are sad, you may not be motivated to try as hard at things. This could run over into your divorce case. Even when your attorney is doing their best to get the outcome that is fair for everyone, you might find yourself sabotaging things or not caring, which can be a sign of depression or other conditions that may need to be addressed.
If you or your STBX have already been diagnosed with some type of depression or other mood disorder, it’s probably going to be difficult to keep things balanced during the divorce process. That is, of course, unless you are prepared.

Grief/Feelings of Loss

A lot of people don’t like to think about it, but there is a sense of loss that comes with divorce and breakups. There is a natural grieving process that takes place, and it can be more or less severe for different people. The feelings that you have are never wrong, though, whether they are serious or just fleeting, and they are yours to have.
Often, people will try to avoid the loss or dealing with the related feelings. When people already struggle with mood or mental health disorders, it can be further worsened. Some might turn to drinking or drugs, spiral into a worsening depression, see increased anxiety as a result of grief, and more.

There is so much that can happen and grief is a tumultuous enough experience on its own. Adding mental health and mood disorders to the mix only adds fuel to the fire. Your entire world is changing when you go through a divorce. Trying to maintain your mental and emotional wellbeing can be a challenge for anyone.

Stress and Anxiety

When you hear the words “divorce” and “custody”, your blood pressure probably immediately shoots up. These two terms, and their actual practices, cause a serious amount of stress and anxiety for many people. For those who already struggle with anxiety, it can be immediately and consistently overwhelming. Having a plan can mean the difference between getting through the process and experiencing a good long term outcome vs. having a complete breakdown or settling for a terrible outcome just to make the litigation stop.

Anxiety is a serious condition that comes in several forms. It is agitated, exacerbated (made worse) and brought on by stress. It can affect people’s day-to-day lives and keep them from being able to live to their fullest. In some cases, it can lead to things like avoidance anxiety.
What’s avoidance anxiety? This is a characteristic of anxiety conditions and some forms of ADHD marked by an inability to function or complete tasks due to anxiety or stress about them. For example, someone with a looming deadline for work might put it off until the last minute because they are anxious about where to start.

In the case of a divorce, there is a definite timeline in place and it is essential that everything is done in a timely fashion. Being unable to complete paperwork, make appointments and court dates, and struggling with other tasks can all make the process that much more difficult. It can be easier with a qualified lawyer on your side, but it still won’t be a walk in the park so you will want to be prepared.

Uncertainty and Fear

There is much fear and uncertainty for couples and children involved in a divorce and custody case. The entire process is stressful and everyone’s lives are changing– it’s a big deal. Of course you’re going to be fearful of what’s to come, stressed and uncertain about the future, and unsure of how to proceed as a result.

For those who struggle with anxiety and other conditions related to fear and stress, this added uncertainty will only serve to make things worse. Although you can plan and try to prepare, there is never an exact timeline or roadmap through the divorce and custody process. This can create undue stress for those who struggle to just “go with the flow” or for those who can’t overcome their anxiety to handle the divorce process accordingly.
Throughout this book, we’ll talk about several mental health and mood disorders, as well as how they are marked by their own uncertainties and how they can affect the entire divorce process, and vice versa. In most cases, you can avoid a lot of issues by being prepared, but there is never anything that will remove all of the uncertainty.

To a certain degree, you have to do your best to educate and prepare so that you can minimize it, but you also have to accept that there’s going to be a level of uncertainty that comes with the process. If you hire a trusted attorney, many of the extreme emotions, including fear, can be addressed and handled before they become major issues.

Mental Health Disorders and how it impacts your divorce

Talk to Your Attorney and Be Prepared

The best thing that you can do, after reading this book, is to sit down with your attorney and discuss your specific situation. Take the time to consider all of the factors at play, who has the condition and how it might impact the divorce or custody case, and what you can do to ensure that the outcome is still fair, regardless of the circumstances.

Ask questions that are relevant and of concern to you. Feel free to take notes as you read and make a list of things you want to talk about. That way, even if it’s not fresh in your mind, you’ll be able to reference your notes and get the conversation started. The best way to handle a mental health disorder or addiction in a divorce, as with anything, is to be prepared.

There are many factors at play here, but a little bit of planning can go a long way. With a prepared, educated attorney and the right information on your side, you’ll have a much better chance of handling a divorce or custody case with minimal stress or conflict, even when there’s a mental health disorder or addiction involved.

Ask your attorney any questions that you have about your case. If you are worried that your spouse who suffers from schizophrenia could be awarded sole custody and know that isn’t safe for your child, for example, you need to start building a case. If, conversely, you’re recovering from an addiction and know that it won’t impact your parenting, but your spouse plans to use it against you, you’ll also need to start building a case, albeit a different one.

That’s why you need to hire a qualified divorce attorney and immediately sit down to discuss things like mental health and addiction, as well as their role in or potential impact on your own case.