Earlier this month was World Mental Health Day, which is observed on 10 October every year, with the aim of raising awareness of mental health issues and advocating against social stigma.
In previous generations, mental illness was exclusively dealt with by psychiatric hospitals while those who were battling to manage stress, trauma, anxiety and depression suffered in silence. Thankfully, today we have acknowledgement and recognition in society that this is an issue, which is making it easier for people to come out and talk about their challenges.
Mental health is something that needs to be managed and maintained by all of us, just like with physical wellbeing. And, like dealing with physical injury or illness, shouldn’t cause judgement from others. Dealing with mental illness doesn’t make you weak or incompetent, but it does point to the need for change and for expert advice and support.
I don’t profess to be an expert on mental health issues, but I do profess to have experienced the stresses and strains of legal practice over the decades of my career. And, I’ve experienced the pitfalls of using the wrong measures to cope with these.
The UK’s Mental Health Foundation defines good mental health as, not simply the absence of diagnosable mental health problems, but by a person’s ability to fulfil a number of key functions and activities, including:
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.
I do think that there is a crisis of sorts and this is not from empirical data, but from our daily interactions and experiences within the legal fraternity. Heavy drinking, narcotics and drug taking are some of the responses to mental health issues that also need to be confronted in our profession.
My firm, Norton Rose Fulbright has regular updates on mental health support interventions and our global leaders are working hard to raise awareness about the obvious challenges. As the Norton Rose Fulbright Global Chairperson, Andrew Robinson, said in his latest newsletter, “We all struggle at times. Our objective is simply to create a culture of compassion and kindness (in South Africa we call this “Ubuntu”) where mental health is understood, where our people are not made to feel shame or guilt should they experience mental health issues, and where our firm and each of us can respond effectively when someone needs help.”
The pressures weighing on young lawyers are arduous and stressful and that’s something we need to get on top of. As much as young lawyers need to learn how to record time, it is imperative that we talk to them about the stresses and challenges that come about with being a lawyer at this time in history. Stress is the most specific response of the body to any demand made on it, to any environmental demands, so it’s something we need to learn to manage.
Those who choose to join the legal profession will face unique stressors. Being a lawyer is not a profession for comfort seekers and, on a daily basis, we deal with immense pressures, with the hopes and aspirations of clients, with uncertainty, conflict and incredibly high stakes.
In addition to the unique challenges faced by those in the legal fraternity, we are living in perilous times weighed down by economic challenges and financial instability. We are also all dealing with change, loss, uncertainty and suffering. We need to acknowledge these pressures and navigate them through honesty, communication and mutual support, not by pretending that we can go it alone. How we deal with stressors can impact our mental wellbeing. Some stress signals include interminable tiredness, an inability to think straight, irritability, withdrawal, feeling run-down, an inability to relax and feeling that you don’t know what you are doing. Long term responses can include headaches, back problems, allergies, insomnia, irritability, loss of concentration and depression. Stress is often linked to ulcers, heart problems and some cancers.
We can start by addressing the sources or triggers for our stress. Our triggers could be a reluctance to delegate, or perfectionism, or ‘the badge of busy-ness’ to fill a sense of inadequacy.
Stress is a learned behaviour (we were not born stressed), so we need to relieve stress both on a body and a mind level. We all know that exercise, relaxation, hobbies, meditation, regular breaks and holidays play a big role in mental and physical wellbeing. Journaling and writing down our thoughts can assist in sorting out problems, while sharing with someone you trust and practising mindfulness can help. And, of course, therapy and medication are imperative if we need it.
To help each other overcome and manage mental health issues, reduce suicide rates and depression and anxiety, we can start by raising awareness, rather than sweeping our emotions under the collective carpet. Sure, we don’t want to appear weak and imperfect in front of clients, but we’re all human. And, while we don’t need to air our laundry to the world, we can create safe spaces among trusted colleagues to share candidly about our individual journeys in managing stress effectively.
As leaders, we can blaze the trail by putting mental health on the agenda at meetings, in company communications and at conferences. We must remember that a large proportion of our adult lives are spent in the workplace. Our experience at work – the environment – plays a big role in impacting our overall well being. Where the environmental is collegial and transparent and supportive of addressing mental health, then employees can thrive and firms in turn enjoy increased productivity levels. But a negative working environment impacts the mental health of employees, and in turn, increases work absence, substance abuse and lower productivity.
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