How Mental Illness Impacts Child Custody

Goldberg Jones Child Custody 8 Comments

It’s difficult to talk about, and many couples keep it hidden, but mental illness impacts every facet of a person’s life, as well as those around them. It often has a devastating influence on a relationship or marriage. Not only does it frequently lead to divorce, but mental illness also impacts child custody in significant ways.

Mental Illness & Child Custody

Cases involving mental illness are notoriously tricky. Mental illness is a broad name that encompasses a wide array of disorders. This umbrella term covers depression, anxiety, addiction, borderline personality disorder, bipolar disorder, and many other conditions. The nature of each is vastly different, and the same goes for how a particular mental illness impacts child custody.

Because of the nature of the beast, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to how mental illness impacts child custody. Every case is going to be different. It depends on the severity of the affliction, treatment options, the willingness of the parties involved to seek treatment, and many additional factors.


When determining custody, regardless of the factors involved, the courts put the best interests of the child ahead of all other concerns. This includes physical and emotional safety. If it’s unsafe or harmful for a child to be with one parent, that’s the most substantial way mental illness impacts child custody.

Mental illness doesn’t automatically disqualify a parent from getting custody. It will, however, likely influence the decision. If it negatively impacts parenting ability or the relationship with the child, the court takes that into account when determining parenting time.

How much mental illness impacts child custody depends a great deal on the severity. A particular disorder may require frequent hospitalization, make a parent prone to violent outbursts, or necessitate in-home care. All of these factors may sway a case in favor of the other parent.

On the other hand, if a parent is able to manage a condition, the impact is often less strict. If medication, therapy, and other measures adequately keep symptoms in check, a judge is less likely to deny custody. Mild mental illness, like moderate depression or anxiety, may not influence the proceedings at all.

The court views keeping both parents in a child’s life as the optimal outcome. But again, it really boils down to the child’s best interests how much mental illness impacts child custody. Though it may not bar a parent from being awarded custody, it may factor into the type.


In Oregon, there are two types of child custody: legal and physical. Within these two types, each may be either sole or joint. Mental illness, the specific condition and seriousness, can influence what a court-ordered child custody plan ultimately looks like.

Legal Custody: Legal custody gives a parent the right to make decisions about a child’s life. This includes education options, health care, where to live, and other major decisions.
Physical Custody: Just as it sounds, physical custody refers to which parent the child lives with primarily.
Those two options sound fairly simple and on the surface they are. As usual with legal matters, especially those involving children, there are shades of gray and everything isn’t always so straightforward. That’s where sole and joint custody come in to complicate matters.

Sole Custody: Again, the name says it all. Sole custody is when one parent, and that parent alone, has legal and physical custody of a child. In these cases, one parent has the power to make all the decisions regarding that child’s upbringing.
Joint Custody: Joint custody is the most common occurrence these cases. This is when both parents, though not living together, cooperate to raise their child.


Sole and joint custody can refer to either legal or physical custody, and there are a number of variations on the formula. True sole custody is rare since the courts try to keep both parents in a child’s life. Unless there are extenuating circumstances, some form of joint custody is the most common. The court mixes and matches these elements as they best fit a situation.


A father may have sole physical custody but share joint legal custody with the mother. Though the child lives with the father, the mother remains part of the decision-making process. Joint legal custody exists in most cases of joint physical custody.

However, just because parents have joint legal custody, doesn’t mean they share joint physical custody. Like with sole custody, true joint physical custody is also somewhat rare. It works best when parents continue to live in close proximity to one another.

In this case, it’s practical to shuttle the kids back and forth, drop them off at school, and all the rest. Kids can rotate easily between houses and spend substantial time with each parent.

Once the distance becomes too great, however, it’s more difficult. For instance, if one parent lives in Portland and the other in Salem, a joint physical arrangement is less feasible. One familiar arrangement is for the child to spend the week at one parent’s house and split weekends and holidays between the two households.


Okay, now what does all of this have to do with how mental illness impacts child custody? Again, because the child’s best interests are paramount, it may play into how the court divides up the legal and physical parenting responsibilities.

  • If a mother is unable to maintain a stable living situation of her own due to mental health issues, a judge isn’t likely to grant her physical custody.
  • If a father has trouble making good decisions in his own life because of mental illness, that doesn’t bode well for making decisions for his children.

Legal custody claims may take a hit in that scenario. When one parent has a documented history of mental illness-related violence or other behaviors that may potentially harm a child, courts also weigh those factors.

While mental illness impacts child custody in some cases, it may not dramatically bend a ruling. It all goes back to the severity of an affliction and if the court determines it’s safe for the child or not.

Relatively minor cases, or a condition that’s well controlled with medication or therapy, likely won’t tip the scale as much.

Depending on the circumstance, the court may award parenting time to a parent dealing with mental issues. These may be small blocks of visitation that require supervision, but it truly depends on the specifics of the case. The amount may hinge on that parent adhering to a mental health plan, maintaining a stable home, or other requirements.

Comments 8

  1. Hi please let me know. I am going through child custody through court for my daughter 7 years old. Until now it’s shared care, but recently had a section 7 report done by a Cafcass officer and my daughter disclosed things to her about her father, that
    He is hurting her flicking on her face, and shoulders whenshe does not eat. Cafcass officer report states that he has abusive behaviour and she will determine contact regarding this.
    what she has been telling me also. The Cafcass officer said after checking out the gp records she find I was recommended talking therapy in January 2017
    ,and that she will put it in her report that she recommending talking therapy for me because of anxiety
    Which I have due to these family proceedings (it has been going on over 3 years ) and as she said I do come across like that , and that this anxiety rubs off on to my daughter. I am a nurse, and I work 33 hours a week , I have an au pair living with us ,to look after the children while I am at work, I have a flat and now trying to relocate, and selling my flat, and buying a 3 bedroom house in Stroud.
    Will this my anxiety affect to
    get custody of (my daughter/ baby who is 2 years old and baby father never lived or married to me ) ? My court hearing is Monday, I am seriously scared to lose my children.
    Please advise
    Thank you very much

    1. Post

      That’s a tough situation to deal with. I passed your contact information along to our managing attorney, Colin Amos, who will get back to you soon. In the meantime, if you have any other questions, feel free to contact our office at (503) 731-8888.

  2. Are there any organizations to help a mother who is going to court concerning full custody of her daughter in March? The father is suing for full custody because of anxiety and depression. She is now on the correct medications and all is going well. The child never suffered from her mothers problems. Any help would be appreciated.

    1. Post

      Thanks for reaching out. That’s a tough situation. I passed your contact information along to our managing attorney, Colin Amos. He’ll be in touch soon and hopefully, have some answers for you!

  3. Hi. My wife took the kids and desepeer
    I start making the paper work and go to the court to ask for kids custody
    She’s not well and she’s suffering from symptoms of depression and anxiety
    Can the court give her the kids custody under this stage
    She can’t look after them and she always smacking them and she keep hurting her self and try to kill her self
    What the court can do ?

    1. Post

      Thanks for reaching out. That’s a hard situation to be in. The good news is, you do potentially have options. It’s complicated and we can’t really get into it in this forum. I passed your contact information on to Colin Amos, our managing attorney. He will be in touch soon and have a more in-depth answer about what you can do.

  4. I’m going thru a hard split. And I know for a fact it has to do with my partners depression. Mood swings . If worse case scenario last thing I wanted to do is have a custody battle with the mom what are my chances of being the main person?

    1. Post

      Hi Jose, that’s a tough situation to deal with. I passed your contact information on to Colin Amos, our managing attorney. He will reach out to you shortly to answer any phone questions you have and let you know how we can help.

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