As collaborative practitioners we recognize and value the utility of utilizing the collaborative approach to divorce with our clients. While this approach offers many advantages, not all clients may be appropriate for this process. Some clients arrive at this difficult time in their lives with a variety of psychosocial and psychological issues such as active substance abuse, significant depression or anxiety, history of anger and high conflict, or with pre-existing maladaptive personality traits or disorders.
Family attorneys, while not trained mental health professionals, generally have considerable experience observing, interacting with and understanding their clients. I believe that with additional knowledge that informs their decision making, attorneys can more accurately determine when a client is appropriate to participate in a collaborative divorce, when they can do so with additional support and intervention, and when they are simply not suitable for the collaborative model.
Mental health practitioners are trained to evaluate and examine a client’s “mental status” and “reality testing.” In the field of psychiatry, a mental status examination is considered analogous to a physical examination performed by a physician. The mental status examination is typically based on a client interview and the clinician’s observations of the patient. It encompasses observations about a patient’s appearance, mood, communication patterns, thought processes, judgment and insight.
It is useful for attorneys to be able to recognize gross signs of an altered mental status or problems with a client’s reality testing when determining whether a client may be a good candidate for a collaborative divorce. In no way am I suggesting that attorneys attempt to diagnose a client, but they may be able to identify behavioral and psychological risk factors of potential problems. This knowledge and understanding may also be helpful in knowing when to refer a client for mental health evaluation and intervention.
The “Screening Stoplight”: A decision-making model
To facilitate client screening for collaborative cases, I have developed a model to inform decision making for attorneys called the “Screening Stoplight.” The stoplight consists of the traditional green, yellow, and red colored lights. Think of “green light” clients as being ideal clients for participation in a collaborative divorce. These are individuals with few or no risk factors identified. A “yellow light” client might be one where there are some issues with their functioning, mood, mental status, or personality features, but who with additional supports and structures in place, can participate in the collaborative process. The issues that raise concerns might be with the client, or might be with their spouse. A “red light” client would be an individual or their spouse who would not be suitable for collaborative divorce.
“Green Light” clients:
- Function in their daily lives
- Can communicate clearly and effectively with their attorney and others
- Have no significant mental health issues outside of normative adjustment challenges to their divorce situation
- Are free of any substance abuse or addictions
- Have a strong support system of family and friends
- Have a high level of “readiness” for divorce
- Have no history of family violence or uncontrolled anger issues
- If parents of a minor child, they have a history of healthy parenting and co-parenting
“Yellow Light” clients:
- Have obvious signs or symptoms of depression, anxiety, or emotional distress
- Are isolated and alone, have little or no outside social support
- Have problems in their attention and concentration. Need re-direction and clarification from their attorney, but can still communicate effectively
- Have a history of impulsivity, questionable judgment and decision making
- There may be a history of substance abuse but the condition is in remission
“Red Light” clients:
- Consistently cannot communicate effectively with their attorney or others
- Have untreated anger management problems or documented history of violence
- Have a severe personality disorder or maladaptive personality traits to the extent that it impairs their reality testing, judgment, and decision-making
- Have active, untreated substance abuse and are unwilling to receive intervention
- Represent the classic high conflict personality (HCP) as described by Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq., in his book, High Conflict People in Legal Disputes
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