Separation and divorce represent major stressors in the lives of family members, particularly where changes in children’s parenting arrangements are concerned

It is a time of profound physical, social and emotional change. While sometimes the transition from one family arrangement to another goes smoothly, for other families this is a time of loss and crisis for which parents and children are seldom prepared.

A critical opportunity to help

Practitioners in the field of family law are in a pivotal position to assist parents, and therefore their children, to most successfully navigate the foreign terrain ahead of them. This is especially so when a parent has a mental illness and may be particularly vulnerable and in need of support.

Beware of assumptions and judgments

Making assumptions about clients with mental health problems will ultimately be to their detriment. Every individual and their mental illness is different in the way it presents and manifests. Legal practitioners will be of most assistance to their clients if they take a holistic approach to them rather than attempting to understand them primarily as individuals suffering from mental illness.

Stigma and disadvantage can affect disclosure

The negative repercussions of stigma and disadvantage usually associated with mental illness have historically presented clients with difficulties in disclosing mental health problems. This applies in particular to legal professionals, for fear of negative outcomes for themselves or their relationships with their children.

Legal practitioners should not assume that their clients will inform them of vital information concerning a diagnosis of a mental illness, treatments or medication.

Assisted negotiation and community mediation

You are more likely to achieve positive parenting arrangements and agreement in the children’s greatest interest when parents are able to participate in assisted negotiation and community mediation. However, at times it may be that a judicial officer of the court is the individual who makes a decision about arrangements for children who are the subject to court proceedings.

In this situation legal practitioners can facilitate the best possible outcomes via family law proceedings if they:

  • remain calm and non-reactive
  • prepare their clients for all possible outcomes
  • communicate clearly and easily with their clients about legal issues
  • remain accessible and non-judgemental
  • remain open to input about their clients’ concerns.

Social and economic disadvantage

Mental health problems are often associated with social and economic disadvantage. Legal practitioners are in a critical position to support the general wellbeing of their clients and to intervene broadly for better legal outcomes for them and their children.

Remember, referrals to support agencies are reflective of quality, child-focused family law practice and can have a positive impact on social and economic disadvantage. For example, think about referrals to Centrelink social workers and Personal Helpers and Mentors (PHAMS) programs.

Be aware that mental illness is sometimes associated with family violence

The stress of ongoing abuse can lead to a victim’s poor mental health, such as depression and anxiety, or exacerbate pre-existing conditions. Some clients may exhibit aggression as part of mental illness that is not managed. Legal practitioners should place family safety as a priority of their service.

Be aware that high-level parental conflict can affect children’s wellbeing

It is now well documented that parental conflict can have lasting effects on children’s emotional wellbeing, predisposition to mental health problems and the capacity to form successful, long-term, intimate relationships into the future.

Practitioners should aim for a reduction in conflict and to protect their client and their client’s children from undue stress where it is possible.

How you can help

Parents and children where one or both parents have a mental illness are particularly vulnerable to the stresses of family law proceedings. Your clients will be most supported by legal practitioners and other professionals who are:

  • familiar with mental health conditions and some of the issues for parenting
  • mindful of their clients’ health, provide their clients with accurate and timely advice and guidance
  • able to support the quick resolution of family law matters in a conciliatory manner
  • respectful of childrens’ need for a non-combative resolution as quickly as possible (even if their client is themselves particularly prone to engaging in conflict).

Encourage your clients to get the support that they and their children may need during separation and divorce. School counsellors, church and community support organisations may be good sources of help to consider.

Useful tips

  • Take a calm, informative and well organised approach with your clients.
  • Why not engage in a short Mental Health First Aid course?
  • Have advice for parents and children and support services information readily available for your clients.
  • Keep relevant information or resources that may help your clients and their children on hand.
  • Understand any biases or assumptions that you may have about parents who have a mental illness.
  • Understand the constructive role of intervention and medication in the lives of people who have a mental illness.
  • Encourage a relationship between your client and a general practitioner who is an expert in family and child health.
  • Inform yourself about benefits and entitlements relating to counselling and treatment through general practitioners and Medicare subsidies.
  • Familiarise yourself with local support agencies, mediators, therapists and services for children.
  • Establish a relationship with a local referral agency.
  • Familiarise yourself with the broad diagnoses of mental illness.
  • Consider completing the ‘Child Aware practice’ online course.

Useful helplines

Useful booklets

Useful websites

This content is based on information provided by Louise Salmon, a past member of the COPMI National Lived Experience Forum and active lived experience representative. Louise is a social worker who has twenty years of experience in the fields of child and family health and family law. She currently works with children and their parents in relation to their parenting arrangements.

Download Free COPMI Resources

For use by families where a parent has a mental illness, their supporters, and services who work with them.