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Emotion and litigation: new survey assesses impact of disputes on clients’ mental health

Oct 10, 2019, 16:00 PM
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People going through divorce or dealing with family law issues reluctant to seek help despite showing clear signs of mental health problems.

The majority of people going through divorce or dealing with family issues such as access to children are reluctant to seek help for mental health issues despite often showing clear signs of distress, a new survey by Irwin Mitchell has revealed.

The survey of solicitors has revealed the vast majority of clients suffer from mental health issues in the early stages of litigation proceedings, but most don’t ask for help. For World Mental Health Day (10 October), Irwin Mitchell polled its specialist national Family Law team to find out about their experiences with handling clients’ mental health during litigation. The results indicated a worrying amount of clients were showing signs of struggling with symptoms relating to depression and anxiety during divorce and children cases, with many more suffering in silence.

One respondent said: ‘Some clients are really unwilling to seek mental health help during proceedings because they think it will negatively influence the outcome. The reality is the exact opposite: social workers see it as a sign of strength to seek support, not a weakness. ‘It can affect anyone at any age. Lately I’ve referred a number of adult children to family therapy and they’ve found it immensely helpful to deal with the emotions around their parents getting divorced, but I have referred clients of all ages and walks of life in the past and will continue to do so.’

87% of all respondents said either most or some of their clients had expressed feelings of anxiety, depression or other mental health issues because of their litigation – and even more concerning, 89% said they suspected their clients were reluctant to ask for help. A staggering 92% of family lawyers said their clients’ mental health concerns became apparent in the first six months of divorce or children proceedings, and out of that percentage 68% of mental health issues appeared in the first three months. 

Ros Bever, national head of Family Law at Irwin Mitchell said: ‘Mental health is now being talked about more and more in all areas of society, and it’s something that can affect a client at any time, whether they’re directly involved in the proceedings or children caught in the crossfire between warring parents. ‘As solicitors, it is our job to make sure our clients get the best outcome for their situation. Our clients often open up to us as we are their main pillar of support at what can be a very vulnerable and distressing time for them.

‘The fact so many clients demonstrate signs of depression or anxiety and so early on during the litigation tells us urgent change is needed in the way the law works for people involved in divorce.

‘We signpost our clients to the relevant services where possible including GPs, therapists and counsellors and are providing more mental health training for all our staff to help them better support clients as well as themselves.’

The most common responses for how Irwin Mitchell’s solicitors determined signs of mental health issues focused around confiding in colleagues or referring them to a recommended counselling service. When asked whether clients’ mental health issues affect the divorce or family proceedings directly almost all said yes, stating it was usually the case that the client wanted to settle earlier or give up completely.

Ros added: ‘Mental health can have a massive effect on how clients instruct us to operate during their case, and the current laws don’t help as at times it can encourage people to be more adversarial than they originally set out to be. ‘Understandably people may want to look strong in front of their former partners and children, but putting a brave face on things is not always the answer. It is important those going through a divorce or embroiled in a battle over their children look after themselves and their families’ mental health.’

Some respondents mentioned clients want to see the process as a healing experience and are often disappointed when this is not the outcome. Another respondent said: ‘One client of mine found out her husband had numerous affairs over their 20-year marriage which she had no idea about, and that her entire life was apparently a lie. ‘Instead of using the divorce process as a way of healing, which is never guaranteed, she is now in therapy to deal with the issues arising from such a shocking revelation and to help her come to terms with her new reality.’

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  • Divorce
  • emotional wellbeing
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