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Mental Illness – Stigma still has impact…

January 19, 2018

It is not uncommon for me to meet with couples where at least some of the source of their distress is an undiagnosed and untreated mental illness. Where I suspect a mental illness, I refer the person to their family physician for assessment, and where then diagnosed, treatment.

Supporting a person to attend with their physician for assessment can be challenging and then of course, where recommended, supporting a person to use medication can be the next hurdle.

In my experience, when the person I suspect as having a mental illness sees the doctor without their partner, there is a greater probability of my concerns being found as unsupported.

If the person attends with their partner, then the likelihood of a diagnosis supporting my concern is quite high.

When these concerns have arisen in the context of separated parents in conflict over the care of their kids, the likelihood of my concerns being seen as founded is near zero and in these instances, I am likely to be vilified for even raising the concern.

These are extraordinary variations. What does all this mean?

Sadly, mental illness is still seen as stigmatizing. It is still looked upon as saying there is something inherently wrong with the person, that they are somehow defective as a human being. In the case of separated parents the stigma is made worse over concern that an actual diagnosis will be used against the person in the context of a custody/access dispute.

I can also tell you from my experience, that where my concerns are validated by the physician’s assessment and then the person accepts treatment, in those cases, things more typically improve. In those cases we can then go on to discuss the implications and management of the disorder. In those cases, while relationships may still be difficult, they are more likely to survive and even thrive. In custody/access disputes, when the concern is properly assessed and then if necessary, treated, it lowers those issues from the list of concerns.

From a custody/access perspective, we are less concerned about the diagnosis per se and more concerned  with behavior and functioning as it relates to the care of the children. So if diagnosis and treatment leads to better functioning, there is actually a less likelihood that this will lead to greater implications in the conflict than if the person remains untreated and the issues continue to show in behavior and functioning. (FYI – every case is different and I do appreciate that some individuals will have awful experience in their mental health issues still being used against them, however on the whole, this remains the case. I am sorry if your personal experience differs.)

If your clinician or mental health worker or assessor is concerned about you having a mental illness, all we want is for you to have it looked into. Our only concern is your well-being and your being able to meet your goals and objectives in a peaceful relationship.

If you suspect your partner as having a mental illness, please appreciate it is much to take in. It often requires much time to process, consider and look into. If assessed as having a mental illness, it then can take much time again to consider medicinal options. While counseling is important and helpful, so too is medication and the research tells us that most people do best with a combination of both.

The knowledge and attitude of the partner is also important in all this as that too can lead to stigma if one takes a negative view on mental illness and treatment option. Thus the partner’s views can also influence the outcome.

If these concerns arise in the context of a custody/access dispute, if you want what is best for your kids, do not use this as a weapon, but as a concern. Your former partner will need to feel safe in order to address it and in addressing it, your kids will benefit.

Mental illness shouldn’t carry the stigma it still does. Fearing it and not supporting those whose may be affected by a mental illness, now maybe that should be stigmatized.

I am Gary Direnfeld and I am a social worker. Check out all my services and then call me if you need help with a personal issue, mental health concern, child behavior or relationship, divorce or separation issue or even help growing your practice. I am available in person and by Skype.

Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW for counseling and support – to build your successful practice


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Gary Direnfeld is a social worker. Courts in Ontario, Canada, consider him an expert in social work, marital and family therapy, child development, parent-child relations and custody and access matters. Gary is the host of the TV reality show, Newlywed, Nearly Dead, parenting columnist for the Hamilton Spectator and author of Marriage Rescue: Overcoming the ten deadly sins in failing relationships. Gary maintains a private practice in Dundas and Georgina Ontario, providing a range of services for people in distress. He speaks at conferences and workshops throughout North America. He consults to mental health professionals as well as to mediators and collaborative law professionals about good practice as well as building their practice.






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