Men’s Mental Health Issues in Divorce and Custody Cases

Men don’t like to talk about health issues.  This is especially true for mental health issues – men really really don’t like to talk about mental health issues.  Most of us know that mental illness is stigmatized in our society.  I would say this stigma is especially damaging for men.  As men we want to be the unfailing bastions of strength and resilience.  We definitely don’t want to be weepy, weak, cry-babies with hurt feelings.  Regardless of how we may try and delude ourselves, we do get depressed and anxious.  Untreated depression/anxiety makes it tough to fulfill your duties as a dad.  Symptoms are compounded during stressful events like an ongoing custody case.  Why are men so reluctant to seek treatment during a time when symptoms are so pronounced?

First of all, men are generally hesitant to admit weakness of any kind.  That’s why we all lie about how much we can bench press, or in case of a middle-aged man like me, how much we used to bench press.  Maybe it comes from the American frontier ethos of pulling yourself up by own your own bootstraps and taming the wilderness with your own two hands – when there was no time to sit and mope and wonder where the good times went.  I suppose it’s understandable why you wouldn’t see a counselor when missing a day’s work could be the difference between survival and starvation.  With that concept of manliness as the background, it’s hard for us to reconcile mental health treatment with norms of manhood.  Getting a diagnosis of a mental health condition only solidifies that perception of weakness.  Consequently, many men don’t seek treatment because they don’t want the diagnosis preceding treatment.

Gender stereotypes can also affect men’s unwillingness to seek help.  Women are 70% more likely to have depression than men, which may in part explain why depression in men is under-reported.  Let’s face it, women talk about their feelings more openly than men.  That could explain why the the reporting numbers for depression are so much different for men and women.  Because women are often more candid in reporting depression, the act of reporting depressed/anxious feelings gets labeled as a girly activity (cue impression of Arnold Schwarzenegger calling someone a “girly man”).

If you are having trouble with depression, or if you think you might be having suffering from clinical depression, you need to get help.  Let me be clear, it is not weakness to seek treatment for a medical condition.  Being a father requires putting your kids above everything else, including fear and pride.  In any event, failure to seek treatment is a big risk.  Depression can cause family and financial problems, and in some cases, suicide.  Four times as many men die by suicide than women in the United States.  Men are more likely to follow through with an expressed intention to commit suicide than women.  Between 75% and 80% of all suicides in the United States are men.

Depression can also bleed into other maladies.  Substance abuse can arise as a means of self-medicating.  There may be escapist behavior, like spending too much time at work or on hobbies.  Depression has also been linked to controlling, violent or abusive behavior.  Depression can also influence impulsivity, and risky behavior like reckless driving.  None of this is worth rolling the dice on getting treatment.

Aversion to diagnosis/treatment plays a role in child custody cases.  There is a misperception among men that being diagnosed with a mental illness automatically means that you won’t be able to share custody of children.  I find this is seldom the case.  The fact that someone is struggling with anxiety or depression typically will not preclude sharing custody so long as appropriate measures are taken to treat these conditions.  Mental illness left untreated does much more harm to a custody case than disclosure and treatment.  As outlined above, depression left untreated can lead to violent outbursts and risky behavior.  These byproducts of depression are far more detrimental to a custody case than disclosing and getting treatment.  Your children deserve a father who is present.  You cannot afford to ignore or conceal depression, anxiety or other mental health issues.

Moreover, depression is highly treatable.  In fact, 80-90% of patients respond well to treatment.  Treatment involves medication and psychotherapy.  Psychotherapy is a form of counseling that helps patience redirect distorted thought patterns.  Some studies show that psychotherapy is as effective at treating depression/anxiety as medication.

Men often fear getting treated because medical records could be produced as part of the discovery process during a child custody case.  This would mean treatment notes from therapy sessions would be reviewable by the other party.  While it is true that medical records could be produced through discovery and used as evidence at trial, the judge could enter a protective order prohibiting disclosure of sensitive information to unnecessary persons.  You might think, “my wife will never obey a protective order, she’ll tell anyone who’ll listen.”  Assuming this is true, I expect that she is already saying many negative things about you.  Would disclosure of mental health treatment really make things worse?  I doubt it.

Another practical reason to seek treatment on your own is the threat of forced evaluation.  The discovery statutes allow a judge to order a psychological evaluation when mental condition is part of a party’s case.  Basically, for family law, if there’s a good reason to think mental illness is affecting one or both parties, then an evaluation will probably be ordered.  Judges want to take every precaution to protect children.  Failure to have an evaluation despite being ordered can result in a suspension of your visitation rights.  If you get out ahead of an order for evaluation, you can choose your own doctor, and show the appropriate concern for the issue.

Judges are far more likely to give you a favorable custody award if you are under treatment and supervision of a medical professional.  If you are having trouble with depression or anxiety, or think you might be having trouble with these issues, consult a physician as soon as possible.

In honor of all our fallen comrades who did not get the help they needed, let’s make a resolution here and now to get well regardless of our fears or the perception of others.  Being a dad means making sacrifices.  Getting treatment will also show your kids that it’s ok to admit you have a problem and seek help.  Also, it probably won’t hurt your case as much as not getting treatment.