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Pushing back against stigma surrounding mental health

Attitudes are finally beginning to change as more legal professionals are realizing that mental health struggles need not be a permanent barrier to work.

Lorraine Champion
Lorraine Champion, Executive Director of Assist

As lawyers, we are cautious about sharing our personal challenges. We help people and organizations solve problems, and we don't like to acknowledge that we, too, can be help seekers. Instead, we don our superhero capes and project an image of infallibility and stalwartness. Yet, the 2022 National Study on the Psychological Health Determinants for Canadian Legal Professionals shows that lawyers are experiencing high rates of depression, anxiety, burnout and psychological distress. It is imperative for us to confront the elephant in the room, that lawyers are experiencing mental health challenges at much higher rates than the general population.

In addition to supplying valuable data about the mental well-being of Canadian legal professionals, risk and protective factors and recommendations for improving law-practice culture, the National Study also supplies a glimpse into mental health stigma in our community. 

It appears most Canadian legal professionals (lawyers, articling students, Quebec notaries, and paralegals) have a progressive understanding of mental health. For instance, according to the study, less than 10% of our community holds the belief that people with mental health issues can snap out of it and are to blame for their predicament.

Even so, there is a stigma that continues to have a chilling effect on our openness about our own struggles. According to the study, 19% of respondents agreed with the statement that "People who experience mental health conditions are not as capable of working in law as those who do not." That statement could be open to different interpretations. We may widely agree that a person experiencing an intense mental health crisis involving psychosis is not currently fit to practice. Still, there are a range of mental health conditions that have less impact on fitness. Also, many mental health conditions are treatable, so a lawyer who has recovered from a mental health issue may continue to practise law successfully.

Of course, lawyers are skeptics. We often need to see evidence to be convinced. Given the range of mental health conditions that exist, we would need considerable detailed data about each to know if they could impair ability to practise. Most of us don't have time to invest in non-work-related issues. So, tending as we do towards prudence, we prefer to be cautious about whether a lawyer could safely return to work since we don't know all the ins and outs.

With time, I hope we will see a decrease in the percentage of lawyers who assume that having experienced a mental health challenge means ongoing or permanent impairment. Like everything else in law, "it depends" on the circumstances. In many cases, a lawyer who has made a full recovery after a mental health challenge may be better able to ride out future storms, having learned both early warning signs of distress and effective coping strategies.

The study also asked lawyers how they believe their peers view mental health issues, giving insight into the perceived stigma. More than a third believe that their peers hold the view that people with mental health issues could snap out of it if they wanted to or are to blame for their problem.

I attribute the disparity between our personal views about mental health and how we perceive those of our peers to lawyer culture. We are not known for showing compassion to people who are suffering. We sometimes use mental health as a credibility factor against them if they are opposing parties. Lawyers can also speak judgmentally of their peers who are struggling—no wonder we fear our peers' reactions to our internal struggles.

There are small steps we can each take to reduce perceived stigma in the legal profession. First, we can look for opportunities to educate our peers through formal learning opportunities or by respectfully correcting inaccurate mental health stereotypes. If a colleague expresses annoyance that another is on mental health leave, saying that they should pull themselves up by their bootstraps, we should remind them that experts in the mental health treatment community would dismiss such views.

Lawyers who are respected in the firm can share personal stories about when they have used professional counselling services. Conversations like these help normalize how lawyers deal with challenges and can help shift points of view. Showing that lawyers can overcome challenges and have meaningful and successful careers can counteract stigma.

We need to be open to serving as allies to lawyers, students and staff who are struggling and if possible, help them seek help. You can also help dispel lawyer mental health issues with facts and data, including data about lawyers' personal beliefs from the National Study or Assist's Myth Busters where we challenge lawyer mental health myths in a light-hearted way. 

While there remains room for improvement, there is hope. Since 2008, more than 30% of Alberta lawyers have approached Assist (Alberta Lawyers' Assistance Society) to seek counselling or to speak with someone about how to plan a conversation with a colleague they are concerned aboutA growing number of lawyers are accessing the service and other employee assistance programs or paying for services privately. This shows that lawyers believe in counselling and taking positive steps to improve their well-being. We must continue to shine a light on stigma with lawyer well-being realities and consign negative mental health stereotypes to the waste bin.

If you are in Alberta and are worried about someone in your midst and aren't sure how to approach them to offer to help, please check out "How to Help Someone" on the Assist websiteCall 1-877-498-6898 to schedule an appointment. Please visit Assist's website for more resources.