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Divorce and separation are two of the most stressful experiences we can experience in life. The Holmes and Rahe stress scale puts them second only to the death of a spouse – worse than imprisonment, serious injury or losing your job. It is hardly surprising that mental health issues arise in many of the cases we deal with as family lawyers.
For some couples, they are a contributing factor to the separation. Living with someone with poor mental health can put a huge strain on a relationship and twenty-first century living only adds to the strain. Many people now live far away from family support and we have seen traditional problems such as gambling and drug and alcohol abuse joined by newer addictions to pornography, online gaming and social media.
For some couples, mental health difficulties arise out of the separation itself. Nobody finds divorce easy but a 2014 study found that it actually increases the risk of suffering a major depressive episode by between 10% and 20%.
For many, their mental health problems have no direct link to the separation itself but may impact their ability to cope with the breakdown of their relationship and deal with the necessary legal and practical steps that follow. Or it may not be the couple’s mental health that they have to worry about but someone else’s – a parent with dementia or a child struggling with an eating disorder.
It seems ironic that at the very time Mental Health Awareness Week is promoting openness and understanding of mental health problems a BBC report yesterday on child contact proceedings described addiction and mental illness as ‘toxic’ influences – the implication being that children cannot be safe with a parent with these issues and need to be protected from them. It is no wonder that many couples feel forced into the court process rather than being able to engage in sensible, constructive discussions about future arrangements for themselves and their children.
Solicitors are not therapists and are not trained to help their clients work through mental health difficulties. But we are in a unique position to be alert and on the lookout for them, and we can take a key role in steering our clients away from court and open a more constructive, considerate dialogue if that is more in their and their family’s interests.
At Family Law Partners we are proud to work with a network of counsellors, psychotherapists and family consultants who help our clients deal with the psychological and emotional aspects of their separation. They also help them develop strategies for any difficulties they have in coping with issues relating to their ex, children or other family members. In this way, we are often able to save our clients from damaging court proceedings and negotiate instead in a constructive, supportive way at a pace that is right for their particular family.
There are many different mental health difficulties that families can experience around the time of separation and each will have its own particular legal and practice consequences. That is why, this Mental Health Awareness Week, we are pleased to announce that we will shortly be publishing our ‘Impact’ series which, over the next year, will look at how a range of mental health issues affect and are dealt with in family court proceedings and what you and your solicitor can do to minimise their negative effect on your separation.