“It looks like my marriage is coming to an end, and I am terrified about custody of my daughters. I have some concerns about my mental health which I am afraid that my husband will use against me to persuade a court that I am a threat to them.”
The fears expressed above are more common than you might think among people who are going through a divorce, particularly when the custody of children is an issue. The feelings range from simple embarrassment about things you would prefer to keep private to a belief that disclosure of your mental health challenges will cause others to label you as “crazy,” “sick,” or “deranged.” Your instinct is to try to conceal the details about your mental health, including from your own attorney.
Although you may think you are protecting yourself with such an approach, in fact you are likely hurting your case. Your approach can be likened to blindfolding your attorney. Without having a complete understanding of all of the facts of your mental health circumstances, your attorney is not able to be proactive in developing a strategy to put those facts in context as well as develop other, more positive facts. You and your attorney have many decisions to make, such as whether to waive or assert the attorney-therapist privilege, and whether and how to develop testimony from experts and lay witnesses. Complete honesty with your attorney is key to being able to make good decisions.
It is also important for you to keep in mind that it is hard for you to be objective about your own mental health. You may judge yourself and your circumstances more harshly than will judges and others in the court system such as custody evaluators and parenting coordinators. The views of Family Law professionals as well as those in the general population about mental illness have changed significantly in the recent years. There has been a clear shift from keeping mental illness secret and “in the closet” to a much healthier emphasis on acknowledgement and treatment. In general, getting treatment is seen as a strength, not a weakness or something to be hidden. Further, in custody cases, a connection must be demonstrated between a parent’s mental condition and the best interests of the children — the mere existence of mental health issues is not sufficient.
So when you are looking for a family law attorney to represent you in your divorce, select one whom you can trust with the sensitive details of your mental health, and then be completely open with him or her about all of the facts of your situation.