Laura Kanaan – March 2017
Mental health professionals can be an invaluable part of the family law process. Lawyers and clients draw on a range of professionals, including psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers and counsellors, to guide and support individuals and families going through difficult times.
It is not uncommon for mental health professionals to wear many hats. tailor their approach to unique circumstances of a file. For example, they may act as mediators, parenting coaches, individual therapists or child-related experts. They may meet with clients and their lawyers, just clients or with each person individually. With your permission, they may meet your children. They could also act as a liaison between parents and other professionals involved with the children.
Many clients are unaware of the dynamic role mental health professionals can play in the family law process. Here are some common examples of where a mental health professional can add significant value to your family law process.
Parenting is Contentious
Parenting is an emotional area of family law. It can be very difficult to navigate parenting after separation because parent’s differing views on the best interests of the children, the emotional fallout of the relationship breakdown, different parenting styles, differing views on how children are adjusting etc… A mental health professional can assist parents in crafting a parenting plan by mediating a parenting plan, preparing a custody and access assessments, providing individual therapy or referring parents and/or children to the appropriate supports. Mental health professionals have the skills and experience to provide insight that lawyers cannot always provide.
Difficulty communicating (or downright dysfunctional communication) is one of the most frequently raised issues in family files. The inability to communicate is not specific to parenting disputes. It applies to anyone who needs to maintain contact with the other party following a separation. Parties are often required to fundamentally shift the way they communicated in their relationship. This is no small task. It takes self-awareness, education and practice.
Mental health professionals can greatly assist parties in working on their communication style with the other person with a view to improving the post-separation communication. Some professionals will provide template emails and require the parties to copy them on their exchanges for a period.
Parties are at Impasse
It is not uncommon for negotiations to come to a screeching halt in family law. In these cases, parties who have otherwise expressed a desire to settle their file, have become entrenched in their positions. Impasse can be a strong indicator that there may be underlying emotional or psychological needs that are not being addressed in the negotiations. Sometimes, lawyers are able to explore this with clients. However, a mental health professional can greatly assist parties in working through some of the psychological/emotion barriers that could be preventing settlement.
Underlying Mental Health/Addiction Issues
When one or both parties going through a family law dispute have underlying mental health or addiction issues, mental health professionals may be necessary.
Lawyers rely on mental health professionals to perform assessments that could be safety-related, such as an addictions assessment, or a parental capacity assessment with a psychological component.
Lawyers may also request that the mental health professional provide information about whether the person is competent to make decisions in a process, or for referrals to ensure clients are accessing the necessary resources. Their involvement can be particularly important in instances where there has been family violence, or where a power imbalance exists between parties.