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By Craig Zawada, Q.C.
President, 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. To kick off the week, please see the article below by our President, Craig Zawada, Q.C. This article first appeared in our spring edition of the Benchers’ Digest with the theme Mental Health: Struggles and Successes.
My initial thought writing this message, my first as President of the Law Society, is that I boxed myself into a corner.
Let me explain. One of the little things I wanted to do as President was provide a monthly report to my fellow Benchers. It was not intended to be anything momentous, just a way of letting them know what I was anticipating and doing, and trying to keep our activities front of mind.
I happened to be writing February’s report on January 31, which you might recall was “Let’s Talk Day”. That day has grown into a national conversation around mental health issues and lessening the stigma associated with mental illness. I shared with the Benchers that I had suffered from depression, and talked about the prevalence of mental health issues in the legal profession.
I was overwhelmed by the response. Most of the Benchers reached out, some with stories of how they too had dealt with similar issues themselves or with their families. The commonality of the afflictions was not a surprise – we all know the statistics. But the empathy and support was incredible.
Which brings me to being boxed in. I didn’t plan on that message going beyond the Benchers. It is not that I am ashamed of depression, it is just not something anyone brags about. Even though I have dealt with depression in my past, I do not feel “depressed”. I am in a pretty good place in my life right now, and I know many who have it far, far worse.
But we have a serious problem in the legal profession. Some estimates put the level of depression among lawyers at three times the general population. There are many reasons, but the nature of our job does not help. We are literally paid to shoulder problems, and some of the cases we handle on behalf of clients are horrible. Sometimes it causes short term stress. Other times it is much more serious.
This extends through all levels of the legal profession. For a specific example of the stigma that existed only 30 years ago, look up how Justice Gerald Le Dain lost his job on the Supreme Court of Canada just for asking for time off to deal with his depression.
Times are changing, I hope. But talking about the problem once a year is not enough. Even if we do not suffer from mental health problems or the symptoms they create, like addictions, it is hard to personalize it. It is always a general problem, instead of something which affects specific people. One of the Benchers put it far better than I can, and I hope he does not mind me using his quote:
“It is amazing how we can, and are expected to, present the appearance of having it ‘all together’. Yet, when the discussion actually takes place, we realize that many of our friends, neighbors and colleagues who seem to have perfect lives, experience the very same symptoms.”
That is absolutely true, and is another example of why the stigma should disappear. We don’t think less of people when they get cancer or the flu. Why should mental illness be any different?
So while I personally would rather not harp on my own experience, I thought if I just left the conversation to Let’s Talk Day, I would miss an opportunity. Particularly in a Benchers’ Digest which is devoted to Mental Wellness, I would not feel right by staying silent when I could offer actual evidence that things can get better. Much like alcoholism is a lifelong disease for some, I guess I will always say I suffer from depression. I don’t know what the future will bring, after all. But today I can say unqualifiedly that there is hope. No matter how bleak things may appear, it can get better and there are resources to help.
Those resources include Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, and I urge any members who are battling personal issues, big or small, to take advantage of it. The program has been carefully constructed to be independent and respect anonymity. Many of us are embarrassed to admit we need help, especially those who are suffering the most. Please recognize that LCL respects that, and will put you in touch with essential resources. It is not the only way of dealing with personal issues, of course, but it is there for you to use.
I am proud to be a lawyer, and it is an honour to be part of a profession with so many giving, intelligent and principled members. The fact we take on tough issues is a badge of honour. But the physical and mental price we pay for that need not be accepted as a given. The more we talk about this, the more we can help those who are suffering.
Before I close out, I want to mention a few people who have contributed to keeping the Law Society moving forward. Erin Kleisinger, Q.C. was marvellous as President in 2017 and her ongoing advice and guidance is invaluable. I also want to recognize Perry Erhardt, Q.C., who has completed his term as Past President but remains a key part of our Bencher table. And congratulations to Leslie Belloc-Pinder, who was elected Vice President and will be an outstanding President in 2019. Tim Brown, Q.C., our Executive Director, continues to do a great job in managing the multiple priorities and projects that legal services regulation demands, and he makes my role of chairing the Board much easier.
Finally, I want to thank my fellow Benchers for their continued wisdom and insight. It is an arduous task to be on the Board of the Law Society, without much fanfare (or compensation). Without exception, they are all devoted to ensuring the needs of the public and the effective provision of legal services are met. Thanks to you all.