Dealing with mental illness in mediation
Mental health used to be something we didn’t talk about for fear of prejudice, humiliation and rejection. It is undeniable there is still a stigma attached to illnesses which have no visible or medically identifiable physical cause, I know from my own experience that people, including very senior professionals who should know better, are prepared to refer to your “alleged illness” or are willing to dismiss such illnesses with a perfunctory nod and a (sometimes well intentioned) non-committal comment such as “really, that sounds horrible”.
It often happens that in a mediation we talk about the stress (with a small “s”) and strain that a dispute is causing and sometimes that stress has very real-life consequences.
I was reminded of the difficult line mediators have to tread between showing sympathy and being manipulated recently when, in a caucus mediation, one of the parties openly and (in my humble opinion honestly) said they felt they should just end themselves. Doing so, they said without any drama, would bring an end to the suffering of their family and those around them. In the context of commercial disputes this is not something which occurs regularly, but it happens enough that I now have a list of counsellors whose details I readily pass to clients who express such feelings.
On this occasion it could have been considered a tactic to try and gain sympathy, and no doubt that has been the case in some mediations I have conducted over the years. As a mediator you need to get to know people and you find that as with all people some you like, some you don’t, some you simply don’t trust and others elicit your sympathy and whether that is by guile or honesty doesn’t ultimately matter if (as in the vast majority of cases) you can help steer them to a resolution.
As everything within a mediation remains confidential you cannot simply call in the assistance of third-party advisors, whether it be for debt management, tax advice or counselling but we have to be careful to ensure that the parties involved are at the very least signposted to such advisors, whether or not as mediator you believe they are being open about their position.
There are in addition the difficult decisions for the mediator as to, firstly, whether the condition the client is suffering leads to the inevitable conclusion that the client cannot make a reasoned decision, or whether they are in such an unfit state mentally that any agreement they reach would be tainted by incapacity (whether formally diagnosed as such or not) and secondly whether the pressure under which a mediation naturally operates is adding to the problem.
There’s no easy answer and each mediation is, of course, a process all of its own within a framework, but we must remain live to the fact that some clients don’t just need a mediator but they need other help as well which we are not qualified to provide (and even if we are must not offer that advice in the context of mediation).
Northwest Mediation will treat all clients, irrespective of illness, with professionalism and kindness but is also live to clients' additional needs. Contact our mediators to find out more or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
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