Resilience, Mental Health and the Legal Profession

For this article, I would like to discuss a very serious topic, which is mental health in the legal profession. It has rightfully become more topical in recent years and the wonderful governing bodies in our state Law Societies are offering access to resources to help practitioners. Unfortunately, many don’t know they are available.

Allow me to start with a few statistics to illustrate why this is such an important discussion to have.

In May 2009, the Brain & Mind Research Institute of the University of Sydney released a report (in conjunction with the Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation) titled “Courting The Blues: Attitudes Towards Depression in Australian Law Students & Lawyers”. The full report for anyone interested is available here.

The key statistics from this report on our profession are as follows:

Levels of distress

21.9% of law students reported high levels of distress (in comparison to just 10.2% in the overall general population. 13.3% said that they experienced levels of very high distress compared to just 3.1% in the general population.

22.3% of solicitors reported high levels of distress (9.2% in the general population) and 8.7% reported very high levels of distress (compared to the much lower 3.8% in the general population.

12.5% of barristers surveyed said that they reported high levels of distress and 4.2% reported very high levels of distress.

Depression

Experiences of depression within individuals

  • 46.9% of law students
  • 55.7% of solicitors
  • 52.5% of barristers

So more than one-half of practicing solicitors and barristers have experienced depression at some stage. That’s over one in very two – a huge proportion.

When it comes to someone close to you experiencing depression, the figures jump even higher. Amongst those studying or working within the law, the majority would know or work with someone battling depression:

  • 69.7% of law students
  • 70.6% of solicitors
  • 56.0% of barristers

For those who had reported having had experienced depression, the highest stress for solicitors and barristers was work (81.8% and 78.1% respectively) and for law students was study (80.6%).

The survey participants were asked to list behaviours and symptoms they had experienced due to the depression caused by their work. They identified the following:

  • Withdrawal from close family and friends
  • Unable to concentrate or have difficulty thinking
  • Becoming dependent on alcohol, drugs or sedatives
  • Have relationship or family problems
  • Stop doing things they enjoy
  • Have suicidal thoughts or behaviours
  • Stop going out
  • Not getting things done at school/work
  • Relationship or family breakdown
  • Lack of self-care
  • Develop new physical health problems

Studies are showing quite consistently that the lower your levels of engagement outside the profession are, the higher the proportion of mental illness will be.

I think we can all agree the that the numbers are alarming. It has been said by many, quite flippantly in my view, that this is all just down to being in a profession that attracts only alpha personality types. So, we either adapt or we watch as our friends, colleagues and ourselves risk becoming part of the statistics who simply leave the profession……. or worse. I can tell you anecdotally about the people who have joked to me about just having a few drinks to unwind. Now of course, none of this really helps.

Seeking help

Reaching out for that help is not an easy feat. It takes Herculean strength to both realise that you need help and to ask for it. So, if you are reading this article and perhaps thinking that you need to reach out, then allow me to congratulate you on being tough enough to reach that first critical step.  As lawyers, many of us feel that because we are in a high-pressure industry, with high achievers and a need for as many hours as possible to be billed, that if we reach out for help, we risk being perceived as weak, as somehow possessing a character flaw that means we are not meant for life as a lawyer. Many of us feel it could not only jeopardise but even end our careers if we admit we need help or are suffering in some way.

A recent study from 2011 by beyondblue reported that lawyers felt their organisations were less likely than others to actively help an individual seek treatment. Lawyers felt they were more likely to agree that having a stressful job increases the likelihood of depression. The numbers jumped in this regard from 63.1% in 2007 to 73.3% in 2011 – that’s over 16% growth in just 4 years.

The news isn’t all bad, and as I mentioned earlier, the law societies in each state are making it easier to get access to help. Here in Queensland, as part of your law society membership, you are given access to four free counselling sessions. Another avenue is to speak openly to your doctor. Having a trusting relationship and rapport with your doctor is a fantastic first step in developing a vigorous medical history for both your physical and mental wellbeing.

The numbers show a trend towards recovery in that 50% of those people reporting episodes of anxiety, distress and depression will recover and remain well. It is important to note that you must pay attention to your own warning signs as recurrence is far more likely if the first episode is not properly treated.

The law societies have a program called LawCare. You can access the resource by logging in using your society member number. Each society has a brochure of contacts and access to the care programs. You can make use of this invaluable resource by telephone, video conference, live chat, or in person.

The Law Society of NSW in 2014 launched an outstanding service in conjunction with Lifeline Australia, called quite simply Lifelife for Lawyers. In these programs, you can feel confident in their discretion and know that your details will never be disclosed to your employer or even to the law society.

We have a long way to go in removing the stigma from mental illness especially in the workplace. Experiencing distress, anxiety or depression doesn’t make us unable to do our work as legal practitioners. It is perhaps just a gentle reminder that we are only human after all. We need to work together as a united profession instead of fearing that we must survive alone as individuals. As lawyers, we should embrace our collaborative, collegiate environment and realise that we are not taking part in the Hunger Games, regardless of how you may see it. We have varied backgrounds, experiences and paths we have taken in getting to where we are. I for one welcome the diversity as a chance to open the lines of communication and help our fellow legal practitioners make long and happy careers in this profession.

Please find below a list of links to websites where you can go for help. Check out their resources and give them a call if you need. I also welcome anyone reading this to reach out to me via this site and I am more than happy to help point you in the right direction if I can. However you truly are spoiled for choice with a good General Practice Doctor and your Law Society for amazing resources to take care of you.

Where to go for help:

Lifeline: (https://www.lifeline.org.au/)

Beyond Blue: (https://www.beyondblue.org.au/)

Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation: (http://www.tjmf.org.au/)

The Black Dog Institute: (https://www.blackdoginstitute.org.au/)

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