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Mental Illness and Stigma in Child Custody Cases

This May, Mental Health Awareness Month, we examine how mental health stigmas impact child custody cases and what to consider if you are a parent diagnosed with a mental illness.


Lately, it seems like everywhere you turn, people are discussing Amber Heard and Johnny Depp. A lot has been said about Heard’s mental health issues and the testimony given by psychologist Shannon Curry, who described those with borderline personality disorder and histrionic personality disorder as showing “a lot of cruelty,” “very concerned with their image,” and playing a “victim or princess role.”

Adding to the Stigma of Mental Illness


None of these phrases, or any of the other negatively charged words and phrases used by Curry, are part of the medical diagnosis criteria or symptomology of either of these conditions. While no one can argue that Heard’s acts toward Depp were often horrendous, negative and non-medical language from a respected figure like a psychiatrist in such a public setting only adds to the stigma of mental illness.


Thanks to real-life incidents, such as the Depp/Heard trial, many people believe that any type or level of mental illness is a safety risk to other people. In addition, there are many examples of movies that portray mentally ill people as dangerous villains, such as Psycho’s Norman Bates or Fatal Attraction’s Alexandra Forest.


Common Misconceptions


While violence by mentally ill people does happen, mentally ill people are statistically much more likely to be the victims of violence. Unfortunately, this misperception can bleed over into family law, where even judges can sometimes fall prey to it. Parents diagnosed with or just accused of having a mental illness are less likely to be granted custody or even unsupervised visitation, regardless of the type of mental illness or severity of symptoms.


Many parents with mental illness are terrified of going through a custody battle due to these issues. Still, with the help of an experienced North Carolina family lawyer, you can cut through those stigmas and demonstrate your ability to care for your children despite your diagnosis.


The primary thing a judge is considering is your children’s best interest and well-being. The judge will be looking for factors that show whether you can provide your children with a safe, stable, and emotionally healthy home.


What Factors to Consider?


Relevant factors include your willingness to participate in treatment and to comply with any medication plan prescribed by your physician, your ability to maintain a stable home and job, the severity of your symptoms, and how long since you last demonstrated concerning symptoms.


The best way to present these factors is to participate actively in the mental health treatment that your physicians and therapists recommend, to stay as calm as possible, and to strive to live your life in the most stable way possible while awaiting your custody hearing.


While there is cause for concern, having a mental illness does not automatically disqualify you from having custody of your children. Rarely does a judge cut children off entirely from a parent. You may not be able to get custody or the amount of visitation that you hoped for right now due to the severity of your symptoms, which can be frustrating. The best thing you can do is stay calm, use your time to work on your own mental health and stability, and show your kids the best possible you until you are healthy enough to petition the court for a modification of custody.