There is still a great deal of stigma associated with mental illness here in the United States. When those with mental illnesses are parents, their diagnoses can become an issue if the child’s other parent, a family member or the state of Rhode Island decides to challenge the custody rights of the mentally ill parent.

To be sure, a parent whose disease is not under control or who is noncompliant with medication may not be competent to care for a child. But it’s a sad fact that a parent’s mental illness is often used as leverage against them to remove children from their custody after a divorce, break-up or even family rifts.

This can have a chilling effect on a parent’s willingness to seek diagnosis and treatment, as they may fear having their diagnosis held over them in a custody battle. It’s not unlikely, either, as many as 80 percent of parents suffering from mental illnesses wind up losing custody of their kids.

In fact, research shows that only a third of kids born to parents diagnosed with serious mental illnesses wind up reared by their mentally ill parents.

Often, if the parent experiences a psychotic break or otherwise decompensates, a child’s other parent, grandparent or extended family members step in and get emergency intervention from the courts to take custody. Unless the new custodial parent or guardian agrees, the mentally ill parent will then have to petition the court if and when they have stabilized in order to regain custody.

Believe it or not, that is often the best-case scenario for the children. Far too many have no relatives able and available to step in at these crisis points, and the kids enter the foster care system.

Mental disability on its own is not sufficient to determine that a parent is unfit, but the mental illness or even the medications to treat it can render a parent unable to care for their kids. Losing custody is frequently the catalyst for a downward spiral into even more severe psychiatric conditions. Sadly, many mentally ill parents and children will never again share the close custodial bond they once had.

If you face a similar situation, it’s wise to learn all of your legal options to retain or regain custody of your children.