For my next post on this site, I wanted to do a follow up about mental health and resilience in the legal profession. Now we have all seen the statistics over and over again. But what about the people behind those statistics. I wanted to tell some real stories and put some relatable faces behind the numbers.
Some colleagues of mine have agreed to speak to me as part of this, of course on the condition of complete anonymity, but told me they were happy to share their experiences if it could even help save one person from experiencing what they have been through.
To start I’d like to tell you about David*. He is a practitioner with 3 years’ experience which he admits hasn’t always been easy. Taking short term contract work to build his experience as he genuinely loves the work. However, the past 3 years have not seen David in a good place at all.
David tells me that he is a survivor of four suicide attempts. Things were so bleak and the pressure he was under was so immense that he genuinely didn’t see any other way out. All four times he ended up in the care of the Royal Brisbane & Women’s Hospital in the emergency psychiatric care unit. He states that he was terrified each time he woke up, strapped to a bed on a few occasions. But mostly he felt a mixture of sadness and relief that he lived. David tells me he even Googled a few websites which had statistics and figures about the least painful and most successful ways to commit suicide. He had access to various medications and looked up what the LD50 (lethal dose) was for each to try and ensure he wouldn’t wake up again. These drugs were mixed with copious amounts of alcohol to further numb his pain.
Now fortunately my friend has a good network of people who were watching out for him and rushed him to hospital to have his stomach pumped and be placed in to care. His GP placed him on a mental health care plan and after a year of therapy with a psychologist he is slowly improving. That isn’t to say he doesn’t have days where he feels completely debilitated by anxiety but he is getting the help he desperately needs and tells me that after many years of struggling and feeling completely alone, he is now in a place where he can cope with the day to day of practicing law again. But he regularly stresses the point that it doesn’t mean that he is okay.
David has been called “high functioning” and I have to wonder what that really means. Is he intelligent and capable? Absolutely. I wish I had half his natural ability for practice. He may be indeed “high functioning” but that doesn’t mean his struggles with mental health are over. He tells me that just because he gets up every day and keeps going, it doesn’t mean that he is actually okay, or “cured” yet as he admits he was once asked. Simply asking if a colleague or friend is okay really needs a reality check. While a great initiative, David’s experience tells me that when someone actually notices the signs that he is struggling, his mental health is in such a poor state that it is already too late. His answer whenever asked if he is okay is almost always an emphatic “no” usually followed by “but I have to be”.
Next I’d like to relate the story of Marnie*. Marnie is an extremely accomplished solicitor with 4 years’ experience as a law clerk and admitted solicitor. Outwardly she appears confident, intelligent and calm. But she tells me that inside her head for those 4 years has been a tempest brewing, but it didn’t start out that way. To me it seemed like she always had it all. I always and still look up to her as an example of strength, intelligence and commitment to her love for the law.
Marnie was approaching the end of her supervision period, she merely had weeks left to complete, working the same ridiculous hours most of us have come to accept as part of this profession, but one day something had just snapped inside of her. The pressure and stress had got too much and again she only saw one reasonable way out. In her brilliant mind, something said that to end the pain, her best option would be to try stepping in front of a bus.
I don’t need to tell you how elated I am that this never happened and she is alive and well today. But it got to the point where she felt she had to just step away from practicing law altogether. She may return or use her incredible skills in another field but the fact is that she sought help after realising she was struggling. Marnie has now moved away from the law and is doing something else altogether. Her brilliant mind is still being used to help others as she was meant to do.
Again, Marnie is a high functioning individual. But much like David, had days where she could barely bring herself to get out of bed in the morning. They both told me stories of walking in to work, walking in to the bathroom and sobbing uncontrollably for an hour. They have experienced panic attacks so crippling that they would pass out in the foyer of their building with the anxiety of what they felt was about to come, many times it was not a result of the actual work but due to the workplaces that they were in.
Marnie now has a young family (who are just adorable – I’d share pictures if I could) who keep her grounded and fill her days with the love and support she so sorely needed back when she was struggling. Like David, Marnie tells me that her issues with mental health are far from over.
It makes me wonder just how many of us have experienced some degree of what my friends have gone through? Let’s face it, we are in a profession dominated by high achieving alpha personality types. It’s easy to put on the face of everything being okay. But are we really?
Struggling with mental health issues DOES NOT make you weak. To me it demonstrates a level of emotional intelligence. It is okay to not be okay. It is okay to struggle and if you feel the need, to step away from practice for a short break. Get the help that you need. You aren’t the first to go through this and certainly won’t be the last. Take solace in that you are not alone. Far from it. You wouldn’t have to look too far to find someone going through exactly the same emotions and hardship that you are.
If you feel like you cannot reach out to a friend or colleague, take advantage of the many wonderful resources of the Queensland Law Society. As part of your membership you receive access to 6 hours of confidential support through the LawCare program. They can accommodate you and speak to you during business hours if you cannot leave work for an appointment.
The RUOK site has a section specifically dedicated to legal practitioners with regular newsletters. Lifeline are another phenomenal confidential resource. Sometimes it is actually refreshing to speak to someone who isn’t emotionally invested in your life and can see things with a fresh objectivity. They will refer you to the help that you need. It may seem scary at first, but it is absolutely worth it and essential to your well-being.
I have two friends alive and well today because they took advantage of these resources. Help is never far away. If you can relate to any part of the stories I have told above, I would urge you to please reach out. A helping hand will be there for you and help lift you back out again.
I would also invite you to confidentially reach out to speak to me via this site. I will ensure you get the help you need, or just be there with a sympathetic ear if you need to vent.
For us to continue to function and develop strong, capable legal practitioners, we need to work together as a whole profession, as a community of like-minded individuals, free of judgement.
Someone is always there if you need it, so never hesitate to reach out.
*names changed to protect the privacy of individuals.