Surviving Custody Disputes as a Bipolar Parent

///Surviving Custody Disputes as a Bipolar Parent

by K. H.
(Centreville, VA)

Parents with Bipolar Disorder face unique challenges when confronted with custodial disputes.

According to Mental Health America, a DC-based advocacy group, only one third of children with a parent with a serious mental illness are being raised by that parent (Making the Invisible Visible: Parents with Psychiatric Disabilities, 2000).

Courts see mental health issues as a severe handicap in parenting, and most often decide against the afflicted parent, even in cases where the mental health issue is found by a court-appointed forensic psychologist to have no bearing on the child or children in question.1

Bipolar Disorder is unique among mental illnesses in that patients suffer from little reality distortion and the condition can be effectively controlled by medication and through counseling, while the stigma associated with the illness is greater than all other mental illnesses except for schizophrenia (Bipolar Disorder, 2008).

Perhaps it’s the history behind the illness that has created this stigma, from previously ineffective treatments to the old terminology manic-depression a term that evokes thoughts of mania. Either way, because of the stigma surrounding this mental illness, afflicted parents are put at an incredible disadvantage in custodial disputes. The other parent will often exploit this mental illness to gain an advantage in a custody battle, one that is difficult to overcome, for what can discredit a person more than calling them “crazy” – the more one protests, the “crazier” one sounds.

In many states, the “physical and mental condition of the parent” is listed as one of ten to fifteen “factors” judges must use to determine custody. While this is typically designed to protect children from seriously mentally ill parents who might damage or abuse them, it is more commonly used against parents with a history of minor to moderate mental illness even when well controlled.

Studies show that a parent who uses mental illness as the central focus of a custodial battle wins 70-80% of the time (Mental Health America, 2000), shutting out the afflicted parent from the most important relationship in his or her life – and this doesn’t seem to be changing anytime soon.

So what can a Bipolar parent do when facing a custody battle?

First, the parent can begin by retaining legal counsel that has represented parents with mental illness successfully in the past. Contacting a local bar association is a good way to find a qualified attorney.

Second, the parent can insist upon a forensic psychological evaluation. This evaluation examines a parent’s medical and psychological history, and provides a clear and unbiased picture to the courts about a parent’s current mental state and prognosis, as well as providing recommendations about how to stay in the best mental shape for parenting. The parent should be sure to be as open and honest as possible, so that the court will know that what’s in the evaluation is all there could possibly be to say about the parent’s condition. This is helpful in preventing the opposing party from throwing out the myriad and sundry accusations about the parent with little evidence. A professional evaluation will speak louder than almost any other evidence.

Third, the parent should be sure to have regular contact with a medication manager and talk therapist. With these providers, the parent can write a specific treatment plan. This treatment plan – and following it – can be excellent evidence to a judge that the parent is actively controlling his or her condition and is doing everything he or she can do to be a safe and healthy parent.

Fourth, the parent should maintain an excellent support network which is able to testify in court. This support network will reassure the court that the parent is not only surrounded by people who can hold him or her up during the tough times, but that the children have resources in case of emergencies.

Too often children lose contact with a parent with a mental illness. It is often the final blow to a person struggling with Bipolar Disorder, and often permanently removes the parent from his or her child’s life. While much advocacy is required to raise awareness of judges, lawyers, and other court personnel, for now parents must prepare themselves for a tough battle.

But there is hope. In 2010, I lost custody of my 4-year-old son because my ex-husband used my Bipolar Disorder as the crux of his legal case. I appealed the case, with the support of an experienced attorney, a forensic psychologist, a team of mental health professionals whom I see regularly, and my own support network. After a 7-day custody trial, I was re-awarded custody. My children and I now live in a quiet neighborhood, and enjoy each other every day without fear.

It is my hope that parents out there who face this problem will find a happy outcome, too. When my mental health was attacked, hiding it and denying it was my first reaction; this only made the judge worry. But when I opened up my head and let everyone look inside, there were no monsters, and the judge could see me for who I am – a loving mother.

To defeat the stigma associated with Bipolar Disorder in custodial disputes, we must be seen as individuals, not just as labels.

To all of the Bipolar parents out there who are facing this situation, I wish you luck, and I hope you will be ready.



2019-04-07T11:18:02+00:00June 11th, 2014|Categories: Scholarships|7 Comments


  1. dan ulmer January 26, 2016 at 10:15 am - Reply

    love the open honest advice

    • Bipolar Lives Staff January 27, 2016 at 11:12 am - Reply

      Thank you Dan!

  2. Teri May 21, 2016 at 5:47 pm - Reply

    My son, who has bipolar disease, has been raising his son alone for 9 years. The mother deserted my grandson due to severe drug and mental health issues when he was under a year old. Our family are active and supportive in their lives. The birth mother accidentally ran in to them a year and a half ago, and is now trying to get custody. She filed a bogus domestic violence charge (witnesses, thankfully, said she was lying) and was granted temporary custody after stealing him from his dad’s. (Picked him up after school)
    My son had no idea where his child was for two weeks. He went to the police, child protective services, health and human services, the school, everywhere he could possibly think of, to try and get help finding his son.
    The stress and devastation he was feeling caused him to have a lot of anxiety and increased behaviors. None violent.. No one would help him. They labeled him as crazy and a bother to their normal routine. The school forbid him to call or even ask another question about his child’s records.
    At court yesterday the birthmothers attorney sat and made fun of my son’s mental state and disease. Said he was obviously dillusional, severely mentally disturbed, and he listed a few other mental illnessess that he was “diagnosing” my son with. All allowed in court.
    The court gave the mother, who has her own list of mental health issues, not brought up in court, temporary custody. We have to go back to court in two days, on Monday morning, and my son has to prove that he is mentally capable and fit to be a father. She doesn’t.
    My grandson is a highly gifted child and attends a school for gifted children. He has state awards for winning jujitsu competitions, my son has been his soccer coach for two years. They have a loving and very close bond.
    My son also has my grandson in counseling to deal with the abandonment issues because of his mother leaving him when he was a baby, and also to deal with having a mentally ill father. In other words, my son has been a very wonderful father. His whole world revolves around his son.
    I don’t know what to do. We have no money for an attorney. My son lives on disability.
    I was at court with my son, and I told the judge that they had lived at my house until two years ago. He still released my grandson to the birth mom, and not to me and the home he lived in for most of his life. I asked the judge if my son could see his son. The judge denied my request. He thought the situation was too volatile. This is the first time in my grandsons 9 1/2 years of life that he is ever been cut out completely from his father. There have been times that I have needed to step in while my son worked on a manic cycle or med problem that was interfering with his ability to parent. He still saw his son or at least talk to him daily. Recently, he came and stayed for three months, (he had just returned when the mother came and took him.
    We live in Washington state. In Port Angeles, Clallam County. Does anybody have some suggestions for help for my son and grandson?
    Thank you.

    • James March 8, 2017 at 8:31 pm - Reply

      So what happen with your son

  3. Porcha October 28, 2016 at 11:09 am - Reply

    Thank you for posting this . I am a mother of 2 beautiful daughters , and i’m getting ready to face this same situation . I am so scared, but you gave me a little hope.

    • Audra June 12, 2017 at 11:27 pm - Reply

      What was the outcome? I am facing same situation.

  4. Tammy Alford May 24, 2017 at 12:21 am - Reply

    My husband and I are on the other side of this situation and we are doing all we can to ensure that my stepson stays in contact and have visits with his mother. Sadly she is only 50 and has been placed in a group home. My point is, not all opposing parents are out to get the other parent because they have bipolar. In our case, she had had sole physical and joint legal and it became too much for her. She is the one who wanted the change of custody. But it has still been a battle, especially in Michigan. I wish you all the best of luck. Don’t let anything other than your love for your child define you as a mother. Only in severe cases where all other options fail, should this ever be an issue.

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