By Ronni Nordal
Bencher, Law Society of Saskatchewan
|Mental Health Week is an annual national event that takes place during the first week in May to encourage discussion about mental health. During this week, the Law Society of Saskatchewan will be providing mental health information to assist our members. This article first appeared in our spring edition of the Benchers’ Digest with the theme Mental Health: Struggles and Successes.|
Teenagers often will try things that put them at great risk, as they believe they are invincible – until tragedy strikes. While as lawyers we can clearly see the teenagers thought process as irrational, I suggest, we are equally irrational when it comes to our approach to mental health – lawyers think “it won’t happen to me” or “I am just fine”.
Within our profession, just as within society in general, a significant percentage have suffered, or will suffer from a mental health illness. The Canadian Mental Health Association quotes some stark statistics:
Who is affected?
How common is it?
As members of the legal profession, we are expected to be confident, tough and always ready to zealously advocate on behalf of our clients. To admit we are struggling creates a vulnerability that simply is at odds with the perception of what a lawyer “should be”.
The reality is that lawyers are often zealously advocating on behalf of their clients while, at the same time, dealing with their own mental health illness. The fact a lawyer has a mental health illness does not define the lawyer, nor does it mean he/she cannot/should not continue to practice law. Rather, just like any physical disease, when a lawyer has a mental health illness he/she must seek treatment, and follow the treatment plan, in order to get healthy and remain healthy.
The first step, as always, is to accept there is a problem. The fact is, a lawyer is more likely to have an addiction or depression related illness than a member of the general public, including other professionals.
A 2016 study, funded by the ABA and Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, published in the Journal of Addiction Medicine indicated that alcohol consumption was a problem for lawyers at a rate between two and three times higher than other professionals.
Patrick Krill, an attorney and former Director of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation Legal Professionals Program recently presented to lawyers and students at a Law Society of Upper Canada professional development session and indicated that American lawyers suffer from depression at a rate about three times that of members of society in general.
I suggest the U.S – Canada border has nothing to do with the rate of depression among lawyers and rather the increased presence of addiction and mental health illness in lawyers is directly tied to the legal profession itself.
As a profession we need to remove the stigma. Lawyers are not better than anyone else in society – we are all human beings that put our socks on one leg at a time. We are vulnerable and are not invincible – and sometimes we need help – it is time to accept that and in doing so, once we, as lawyers feel comfortable to ask for help – that help needs to be available.
By its very nature, the practice of law can be adversarial. In an adversarial system any show of vulnerability can be perceived as weakness but perception is not always accurate. Vulnerability can actually be a sign of strength as it shows the lawyer is honest and aware and recognizes where she/he may be struggling or many need help. Asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness. The question then turns to the response given to the request for help.
When a lawyer does ask for help, his/her colleagues and his/her regulatory body (in our case, the Law Society of Saskatchewan) need to be there and ready to offer assistance, not judgement and certainly not the risk of punitive consequences.
Think about having a conversation with a colleague who tells you they are struggling with getting out of bed and going to the office; are having panic attacks when thinking of going into a trial setting; and of recently breaking down in tears at their desk. What is your reaction? It should be no different than if that colleague told you they have been short of breath and having sharp pains in their chest when going up the stairs – both indicate a likelihood of illness; both call for your support; and both call for you to suggest seeking professional assistance.
Early in my legal career I was aware of a lawyer who was struggling with significant mental health issues that were affecting the practice and potentially putting clients at risk. That lawyer did not disclose to the Law Society, and other members who were aware, also did not disclose. Rather, other lawyers made themselves available to ensure clients were not at risk and the lawyer could seek the help needed to get better and return to practice. I remember the situation well and I remember that the consensus was that any type of disclosure would cause punitive sanctions rather than supportive ones.
The role of the Law Society is key. If I fear reprisal or that my right to practice law will be unfairly affected, I will not disclose my struggles which, in turn will leave my clients at risk. However, if I feel assured that the response of my regulatory body will be the same no matter whether the illness affecting my ability to practice is physical or mental – I will be more likely to disclose. The response needs to be supportive; nonjudgmental and confidential and needs to be proportional.
Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers (LCL) is a free, confidential assistance program for Saskatchewan lawyers, judges, law students and their immediate families. SLIA oversees the contract with third party provider, Homewood Human Solutions, which manages LCL’s program and remains LCL’s referrals coordinator and administrator for professional counseling services. Client contacts are made directly to Homewood Human Solutions 24 hours-per-day, 7 days-per-week for immediate confidential assistance.
Homewood Human Solutions maintains confidential records, reports by reference only to client numbers, and is careful not to reveal any details that might inadvertently identify a specific client. At no time are any details made available to either the Law Society or SLIA which would tend to disclose the nature of the engagement with Homewood or the identity of the party using the service.
SLIA only receives aggregate statistics which provide information about usage of the program and in what areas to assist in the development of further programming for the benefit of its members. If you or a loved one have issues, our only concern is to see that you receive the help that will support your journey to wellness.
The Law Society also has a number of systems which it can recommend/input to assist members who are dealing with health issues of many sorts, to provide support to lawyers and protection to their clients when they are experiencing difficulty in maintaining their practice:
It is now 2018 – and it is time for lawyers to be comfortable with the fact many of us will have a mental health illness – it is time to recognize that lawyers can get the help they need to deal with their mental health illness, just as they would with any physical illness – and that stigma and judgment are the real problems and what is holding many back from speaking out and seeking help.