Compassion over criticism for parents suffering mental illness

3rd August 2020 Family Law

Kanye West’s very public apparent meltdown these last weeks has acted as reminder of the impact mental health problems can have on family life. There was a lot of speculation Kanye’s behaviour would lead to divorce, but it is clear from wife Kim Kardashian’s statement that whatever the long-term fate of the marriage, she looks to support Kanye during his illness, asking for “compassion” rather than criticism of the star.

The call for compassion over criticism of a parent suffering mental illness is a reminder of how such circumstances should be approached, including in separated families and those involved in court proceedings. There is a great deal of misunderstanding about the impact of mental health on arrangements for children, and how mental illness is dealt with in ‘contact’ and ‘residence’ proceedings. We have seen countless cases in which a parent has tried to hide their struggles, for fear of even mild depression being used against them in decisions about where children should live. This can often be counter-productive, because usually getting professional help and support can be the key to stability and improvement. We have seen parents who wrongly believe that mental health problems of any nature are automatically a bar to caring for a child; it is incredibly important that people understand that is not the case.

Parents need to understand that the courts recognise that mental health problems are common, especially for parents going through a stressful relationship breakdown, or court proceedings. The courts also recognise that mental health conditions can be managed and whilst there are, of course, cases where the illness is of sufficient severity to mean that contact has to be limited until things improve, there are also many examples of the courts understanding that the illness does not itself mean someone cannot care for their child.

There is no set rule and as with any children law issue, each case will be addressed on its specific facts. The court will look at the nature and extent of the illness, the level of insight the parent has into it, and how it is/can be managed. Careful consideration will also be given to whether the nature of the illness is likely to place the child at risk of physical or emotional harm and if so, what safeguards can be put in place to limit those risks. It is not unusual for the arrangements to vary, depending on whether a parent is recovering or having a relapse – the key is that the focus will always be on trying to make contact work if it can.

Perhaps the most important thing for parents to realise is that having any form of mental illness will not be a cause for criticism, and that further, if the other parent seeks to use it as a weapon in that way, rather than exhibiting a concerned and supportive approach – the compassion Kim K called for – it is likely that approach will be frowned upon. It is perfectly appropriate to express concern about the impact of mental health, but it should be done without unpleasant criticism. The court will always be looking to see how the relationship between the parent and child can best be supported during such times, and will not support such problems being used opportunistically to try to cut a parent from a child’s life. The courts will also expect parents to ensure children are given appropriate messages about a parent who is unwell, and make sure it is explained in a way which does not undermine their relationship, or cause them to be scared of that parent – deliberately trying to use such issues to stop contact can in itself be seen as harmful to a child.

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Cara Nuttall is a Partner located in Manchester Londonin our Family department

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