: Removing the stigma from mental health in the law

Removing the stigma from mental health in the law

Shane Marshall

On 6 February 2015, after delivering a keynote address to the National Wellness for Law Forum, I was interviewed by Di Martin from Radio National. Towards the end of the interview, I was asked whether the pressure on young lawyers today is worse than it was for me. I agreed and said that I was concerned about the availability of jobs in particular. The interviewer then asked:

So, do you see this issue getting worse?

In turn, I replied that:

I think one is almost tempted to go to a law school and put up a sign saying ‘Beware: Toxic profession’.

In both the keynote address and radio interview I was concerned to draw attention to the difficulties faced by law students and inexperienced practitioners in dealing with adverse mental health outcomes. I also sought to encourage removal of the stigma about mental health in the legal academy and the profession.

Most of the public response was positive. However

a few comments were placed on online forums which highlighted issues of the use of the adjective ‘toxic’.

I admit that, as a law student, I would have shared those critical views. At the time I was in denial about my own anxiety and depression. I believed that if I felt down or anxious I simply needed to ‘toughen up’ and all would be fine.

One contributor to the on-line comments suggested that it all comes down to any individual’s tolerance of stress, saying:

These people know what they are getting into. Some people just do not have the mental ability for stress management.

Another said:

I confess to being somewhat bemusedby that comment from Marshall J. I believe the prospects for law graduates are less than ideal (and I can only speak from personal experience) I have extracted great pleasure from the practice of law (not to mention the … comfortable … level of remuneration).

The two responses quoted here tend to blame the victim in one case, while the other mocks the suggestion that mental health issues are significant for many who study law or practice the law. Such approaches only reinforce the prevailing stigma about mental health issues which exists in the legal profession.

Views which reflect a reinforcement of such stigma must be placed against facts which emerge from learned researchers in this area. Some of that research — such as the 2009 monograph ‘Courting the Blues’ and Kate Galloway and Peter Jones’ article ‘Guarding our Identities’ in the QUT Law Review — is referred to in my keynote address. Further, a recent study conducted by Professor Janet Chan and others at the University of New South Wales shows that a remarkably high level of stress and adverse emotional states exist among a sample of nearly 1000 legal practitioners. It is also worth recalling that the legal profession is 3.5 times more likely to have its members report depression than any other profession.

At some stage in their legal careers, 50 per cent of Australian lawyers will report signs of mental distress. So much is consistent anecdotal evidence of recent massive increases in income disability insurance premiums for practitioners as a result of the prevalence of mental health issues in legal workplaces.

If we care about ourselves, and our colleagues in the profession, it is time to take the issue of mental health in the profession and legal academy seriously.

We must remove the stigma concerning mental health. It is an illness, just like any other, which can be treated and managed. Let us look for signs of distress in others.

Let us encourage sufferers to seek help, and commend them for their courage when they do so.

Let’s remove the stigma. Let’s get our amusement (or ‘bemusement’) elsewhere and stop blaming the sufferer. Instead, let’s look for the causes of the problem and seek to minimise them.

SHANE MARSHALL is a Judge of the Federal Court of Australia, and was an inaugural ambassador for the Wellbeing and Law Foundation, a joint initiative of the Victorian Bar and the Law Institute of Victoria designed to combat the effects of depression in the legal profession.

(2015) 40(2) AltLJ 76
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