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Does a bipolar diagnosis preclude a child custody ruling?

If you are a parent living with bipolar disorder, you are already aware of the unique challenges you face. Bipolar parents fighting for custody of their children are especially challenged.

One Washington, D.C. advocacy group reports that only a third of the children of parents battling mental illness are raised by their mentally ill parent. This is partially due to family courts viewing mental illness as a major impediment to parenting. Often the court rules against the mentally ill parent even when an independent forensic psychologist determines that the parents' condition is not germane to their ability to parent.

The stigma of mental illness puts afflicted parents at a huge disadvantage in contested custody cases. The child's other parent frequently exploits their ex's mental illness to get the upper hand. This is difficult to overcome, as disputing that one is "crazy" tends to make a person appear just that way.

However, bipolar disorder is one of the few mental illnesses where its sufferers experience little distortion of reality. Moreover, this condition can be controlled through counseling and the proper medication dosages. Yet the stigma attached to bipolar disorder is greater than with any other mental illness, save for schizophrenia.

According to statistics from a 2000 study, parents who focus on the mental illness diagnosis of their former spouse or partner win custody in up to 80 percent of the cases. But there is hope.

Bipolar parents facing custody challenges can retain family law attorneys with prior experience successfully representing parents diagnosed with mental illness. They can also insist on undergoing forensic psychological evaluations to examine their psychological and medical histories. Independent evaluations present the court with an unbiased analysis of their mental state and prognosis. Forensic psychologists can recommend ways the parent can remain mentally competent to parent their child.

Other strategies include maintaining a strong support network of people willing to testify to the parent's fitness in court. This also demonstrates to the court that both the parent and child have resources to turn to in the event of a crisis. Maintaining an ongoing relationship with both a talk therapist and a medication manager who can collaborate on a individualized treatment plan gives the court more evidence that the parent has active control over the mental illness and is a healthy and safe parent.

Source: bipolarlives.com, "Surviving Custody Disputes as a Bipolar Parent," K.H., accessed Aug. 14, 2015

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