The fear around mental health in the legal world
24 Aug 2020
What is it with the term “mental health” that causes so much discomfort for the legal world?
This article aims to take things back to basics. We’re going to look at what mental health is, the reasons for our discomfort around mental health issues and how mental health can be displayed in the legal environment.
If you ever ask a lawyer what they like most about their job, I’m certain you’ll hear variants of the following:
- It’s intellectually stimulating
- It’s mentally challenging
- I love the adrenaline of thinking on my feet
- I like figuring out problems / connecting the dots
- I like being able to explain complex issues in an easy way
We’re a mental lot! Our brains are our prized commodity and our mental aptitude is paramount to our success in the legal industry. Afterall, our identity, our careers, our livelihoods are all dependent on it.
It seems quite ironic that, for an industry which interprets and dissects words on a daily basis, the term ‘mental health’ should cause such discomfort.
Why is ‘mental health’ so stigmatised?
No one is born with an affliction towards the words ‘mental health’. It is something which has been learned as we have grown up.
As children, the phrase: “Are you mental?” was often bandied around the playground. A bout of giggles usually followed, except from the poor little kid at whom the comment was directed. From an early age, even if subconsciously, the word ‘mental’ was developing a negative association to being crazy; mad; out of control.
Back in my day, there were no classes around mindfulness or mental health. And, in general, very few open conversations around mental health were held in the home environment either. The snippets of adult conversations which we did overhear around a family member’s mental health were, more often than not, halted when we entered the room – merely stigmatising further this already negative notion we felt towards mental health.
For many, this lack of education and discussion around mental health continued into adult life. Mental health was still rarely spoken about in open terms, limiting the opportunity to allay the unwarranted, negative connotations associated with mental health, and gain any real understanding as to what mental health actually is.
When you pair that misinformation around mental health with a legal industry that prides itself on its mental prowess, is it any wonder that there is a reluctance to discuss any health issue which could seemingly threaten its most precious asset?
How people react to mental health issues
You’ll have, no doubt, seen the following situations play out in the workplace:
- The colleague who yells at you for not being tough enough for the law when you are stressed from overwork (fight).
- The boss who can’t find his words when you try to explain that you have just had a panic attack (freeze).
- The friend who avoids you when you say you are struggling with depression – as if you can catch it (flight).
These are fear reactions: fight, flight or freeze, resulting from a feeling of inadequacy to address the issues at hand and the preconceived ideas around mental health as a whole.
So, what is mental health?
The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines mental health as:
“a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.”
As further described by the Western Cape Government of South Africa:
“Mental health’ is not merely about an absence of mental illness, but rather the presence of mental health and well-being.”
Let’s be clear:
Nothing to scary about that, hey?
Good mental health
When a person is experiencing a good level of mental health, they are able to fulfil a number of key day-to-day functions and activities. The Mental Health Foundation in the UK describes good mental health as, amongst other things:
- the ability to learn
- the ability to feel, express and manage a range of positive and negative emotions
- the ability to form and maintain good relationships with others
- the ability to cope with and manage change and uncertainty.
Research has proven that there is also a direct correlation between the physical health of a person and their mental health.
We will talk later this month about how to improve and maintain good levels of mental health whilst working in the legal world.
What are the signs of someone struggling with mental health?
Poor mental health can manifest in a number of ways and to varying degrees. Some examples are highlighted below:
- Changes in mood / behaviour
- Erratic thinking
- Impulsive actions
- Panic attacks
- Low self-esteem
- Exaggerated sense of self-worth
- Lack of self-worth
- Use of controlled substances
- Reliance on alcohol
- Controlled/uncontrollable eating
- Feelings of loneliness
- Sleep problems
- Becoming quiet / withdrawn
- Suicidal feelings
Do any of those sound familiar? I’d hazard a guess, that at some point in every lawyer’s life, the words: “I’m stressed” will leave their lips. With demanding clients, long hours and a competitive working environment, it’s part and parcel of working in the legal world.
The difference between mental health v mental illness
Before continuing, it is important to understand that there is a clear distinction between mental health and mental illness (even though these concepts are often used interchangeably).
Mental illness includes a range of conditions for which there are standard criteria used to diagnose them (e.g. depression, anxiety, substance abuse). A mental illness significantly affects how a person feels, thinks, behaves and interacts with other people.
In other words:
- you can have good mental health (positive outlook, feeling capable of dealing with day to day issues) but be diagnosed with a mental illness (e.g. clinical depression).
- you can have poor mental health (struggling with insomnia and stress), but not be diagnosed with a mental illness (e.g. alcoholism).
Needless to say, poor mental health, if not addressed, can become a mental illness.
How do we effect change towards mental health in the workplace?
So, with the knowledge that mental health is a state of well-being, something which we all possess, and not something to fear, how do we change the attitude towards mental health in the workplace?
We have to:
- educate the legal community about mental health
- encourage open conversations about different types of mental health issues
- practice good mental health
- acknowledge and admit when we are struggling and seek help when we need it
- lean-in to the discomfort of learning a new way of working – where mental and physical health are promoted and protected.
If you have read the “my story” page on the Braving Boundaries website, you will know that I readily admit to having struggled with stress, insomnia and low self-esteem.
I worked through my struggles with a counsellor and then a coach. I still work with my coach on a regular basis, dedicating an hour talking through any imminent concerns I may have and protecting my mental health.
It’s not made me weaker, any less capable or damaged my career.
Final thoughts for today
As there is so much to talk about on mental health in the legal world, Braving Boundaries is dedicating the next 5 weeks to this topic. Keep your eyes open for the weekly articles and follow Braving Boundaries on Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn to keep up with the daily discussions.
Footnotes:“What is good mental health?” by the UK Mental Health Foundation  Galderisi S, Heinz A, Kastrup M, Beezhold J, Sartorius N. “Toward a new definition of mental health”. World Psychiatry. 2015;14(2):231-233. doi:10.1002/wps.20231 “Mental Health v Mental Illness” by Newcastle Industrial Benefits
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