As is so often the case with legal issues, the answer to this question is “It depends.” Basically, it depends on the specific type of injuries and pain and suffering you are claiming in your personal injury case. It may also depend on the type of mental illness you have. Let's dig a little deeper.
Does Your Condition Affect Your Perception or Memory?
Let’s say that you have some type of diagnosed mental illness or that you are taking medication that affects your ability to perceive and remember events. In those situations, you may very well have an obligation to disclose your illness and medication to other parties in your personal injury claim.
The defendant has a right to know if your memory and ability to perceive the world around you is compromised in any way. Think of a person with some measure of vision loss. If that person's testimony is critical to deciding how a car accident occurred, the defense attorney would certainly want to know if the witness could actually see well. If the witness had poor vision, but maintained that she saw what happened, the jury might not necessarily believe her.
By the same logic, if a personal injury claimant has a mental illness that affects his or her perception or memory, the defense attorney would certainly have a right to learn about that condition and its effects on the plaintiff's cognitive function. Similarly, if the plaintiff is taking medication to treat the mental illness, the defense attorney would certainly have a right to learn what medication was taken and the effects of that medication on a patient's cognitive function. That would be important information for the jury to have as well.
Are You Making a Claim for Mental/Emotional Distress?
A second reason that you would likely have to disclose your mental illness is if you are making a claim for significant mental injury as part of your personal injury damages. In that situation, the defendant probably has a right to know what your baseline condition was. This is just like a claim of physical injury. For example, if you claim you injured your back in an accident, the defendant has a right to know whether you had suffered any previous back injuries.
But what does a “significant mental injury” mean? Most people make a claim for mental pain and suffering in a personal injury case. That usually means the person has been made upset, anxious, aggravated, or otherwise negatively affected by the accident, on top of any physical pain. Most people don’t receive mental health treatment in connection with this type of minor mental pain and suffering, so that probably wouldn't be considered a claim for significant mental injury, and you would most likely not have to disclose your mental illness in connection with your case.
In contrast to this run-of-the-mill kind of pain and suffering claim, a claim of significant mental injury would be something like depression, sleep disturbances, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or any other type of mental condition that forces you to seek mental health treatment. With that type of significant mental injury claim, the plaintiff will almost certainly have to disclose his or her entire history of mental illness, likely going back to childhood. It's a safe bet that a plaintiff making these kinds of claims will be asked questions about any history of mental illness, in interrogatories and at deposition.
What's the Best Strategy?
Keep in mind that every case is different, and it is possible that a judge in your state could require you to disclose any history of mental illness, no matter how long ago it occurred, even if you are just making a standard claim of mental pain and suffering. If that happens, and you don't want to disclose your mental illness, you will likely have to drop any claim related to mental pain and suffering.
If you have a history of mental illness, it's a good idea to disclose that to your personal injury lawyer sooner rather than later, so that you can both come up with a plan to pursue your case while protecting your privacy. Learn more: Preparing to Meet with a Personal Injury Lawyer.